Proposal Protects Workers’ Social Media Privacy

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — Employers would be prohibited from requesting the username and password of an applicant or employee’s social media account under a measure presented Thursday to the House Business and Labor Committee.

Bill sponsor Sen. Anders Blewett, D-Great Falls, said the proposal would fill a void in Montana law to prevent employers from requesting the “keys to someone’s personal life” on social media websites such as Facebook and personal email accounts.

In 2009, the city of Bozeman requested that potential employees relinquish their social media and personal email usernames and passwords before accepting employment with the city. The city abruptly ended the practice after public outcry.

“I would analogize a private Facebook account, a private Gmail account, no different than a house with a lock on it,” Blewett said.

The measure, Senate Bill 195, wouldn’t bar an employer from creating restrictions that prohibit employees from using Facebook or other distracting sites during the workday.

The bill also was amended to allow disclosure of usernames and passwords for business Internet accounts and ensures employers the right to complete thorough background checks of potential employees.

Opponents argued the measure would curb employers’ ability to monitor their employees’ behavior, particularly if the employee posts sensitive client information on a social media site. Employers also need the information to conduct internal inquiries into employee harassment and fraud, they said.

“This bill would prohibit an employer from actually conducting an investigation into a situation where they suspect that one of their employees is conducting corporate espionage,” said Mark Baker, a lobbyist representing the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce.

Blewett dismissed the arguments, saying such employers want to do the jobs of law enforcement officers in cases of criminal activity, and employers retain the right to establish rules pertaining to Internet use in the workplace.

“The question is how far does an employer have to go when they are screening potential employees,” Blewett said. “This law would make it clear that they don’t have to go and ask for the keys of someone’s personal life.”

The measure passed the Senate with a 48-2 vote and needs the committee’s endorsement to move to the full House.

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