Florida lawmakers look at Facebook privacy and job applications

By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida

Big business brother is balking at a proposal that would ban employers from peeking into workers’ private social-media accounts.

The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee approved a proposal (SB 198) on Monday that would prohibit most employers from asking a worker or job applicant for his or her username, password or other means to access private social-media accounts such as Facebook and Twitter.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said he sponsored the measure because, under current state law, someone can be denied employment if they refuse to turn over their secret passwords.

“It’s a matter of where we draw the line and I’ve chosen to draw it at you can’t ask for somebody’s password,” said Clemens.

The measure doesn’t prevent an employer from accessing and viewing publicly available information on an employee’s social media account, and an amendment approved Monday exempts business-related accounts from the restrictions.

Similar measures are in place in 16 states, including New Jersey, California, Illinois, Colorado, and Utah.

Clemens said business groups have lobbied fiercely against his plan.

Samantha Padgett, general counsel for the Florida Retail Federation, told the committee the legislature needs to consider if the private messages by employees are conducted on company time or company equipment.

“This is something the employer could be liable for,” Padgett said.

A business also could be liable for the actions of employees if they haven’t done a proper background screening in the hiring process, she said.

“I can’t raise for you a case where this has occurred. I don’t know of one, but it doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility that an employer could be held for negligent hiring for failing to look into every aspect of the employee they’ve hired,” Padgett said.

The measure also includes a provision that would allow a worker to sue a boss that violated the proposed law, which Padgett threatened would result in more lawsuits against business-owners.

And Associated Industries of Florida lobbyist Brewster Bevis told the committee the proposal is creating “heartburn” for his business members because it could limit internal investigations into any employee’s behavior such as sexual harassment.

But committee Chairwoman Nancy Detert, R-Venice, noted that businesses are already allowed to conduct background checks, pull fingerprints, check credit reports, and do independent Google checks on the individuals being hired. And, Detert argued, businesses already have rules in place for misuse of company equipment.

“We’ve spent a lot of time worried about too much government intervention and cleaning up those rules, now we’ve got too much business in our business as far as I’m concerned,” she said.

“All of our kids and grand kids have been warned that using social media, everything is out there in cyberspace and people can check on it,” she continued. “But if you do your privacy codes right on your Facebook page, that should be like your family dining room table and only for invited guests get to be there, not your employer judging your behavior.”

Clemens’s proposal, which received a 7-2 vote Monday, must still get liked by three more committees before reaching the Senate floor. A House companion (HB 527) has not yet been scheduled for any hearings.