February 06, 2013

The Social Networking Online Protection Act (SNOPA) is Reintroduced


For those of us who live in the U.S., we are well aware of the fact that the previous two years rightfully earned Congress the moniker, “Do Nothing Congress.” Most of the legislation that was introduced in the last session never even got to the hearings stage, never mind made it out to the floor of either the Senate or House of Representatives for a vote. One such piece of legislation that got a lot of attention when it was introduced but no action was the Social Networking Online Protection Act aka SNOPA. Well folks, it is back. Plus, it has something unusual, a little thing known as bi-partisan support.

For those of you who might not remember, SNOPA is designed to protect the users of social media from having to provide their personal information to employers, schools and universities. It protects people already employed or enrolled, those seeking employment or admittance, and those facing disciplinary action from being required to give passwords or other information used to access their online accounts.

The co-sponsors, Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY-16), Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL-9), and Congressman Michael Grimm (R-NY-11), think this should be a no-brainer, but nothing comes easy in Washington, D.C. these days. This despite the fact that in 2012, California, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan and New Jersey all enacted legislation similar to SNOPA, and eight other states introduced such legislation. That said, SNOPA is the only bipartisan legislation of its kind on the federal level, and given the fact that the Internet knows no boundaries, the legislators are looking to fill the void literally and figuratively.

Scoping out SNOPA  

While the proposed law applies to websites such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, one of the lesser known and discussed parts of the proposed legislation also protects e-mail and any other personal user generated content. In its applications, the bill would prohibit current or potential employers or educational institutions from:

  • Requiring a username, password or other access to online content
  • Disciplining, discriminating, or denying employment to individuals
  • Punishing those who refuse to volunteer such information

In describing why SNOPA is so critical, the co-sponsors had a lot to say.

 Rep. Engel, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee stated that, “The lack of clarity in the law puts individuals in a position where they either have to give up vital, private information, or risk losing their job, potential job, or enrollment in school and involvement in the school’s sports programs. Frankly, when there are no laws prohibiting institutions from requiring this information, it becomes a common practice. Social media sites have become a widespread communications tool – both personally and professionally – all across the world. It is erroneous to just say that if you don’t want your information accessed that you shouldn’t put it online. That ignores the basic fact of how widespread these websites and forums have become. We cannot go backward to a time before the internet existed – we can only go forward,”

Rep. Schakowsky added, “Asking for someone’s password is like asking for a key to their home. Privacy is a basic right that all Americans share, and one that we should act to protect; this legislation sets boundaries. No one seeking an educational or job opportunity should have to worry that their personal password information will be required as a condition of enrollment or employment. I look forward to working with Rep. Engel and Rep. Grimm to see this bipartisan legislation signed into law so that no one will face that possibility.”

And Rep. Grimm commented, “While social media may seem like public outlet, an individual’s login information is private. When employers and universities require access to personal usernames and passwords, they are crossing a line that violates personal privacy. An individual’s job should not be threatened by refusal to divulge personal information, which is why I fully support SNOPA in order to draw a clear line on the privacy protections safeguarding account information.”

SNOPA awaits action in the House Education and Workforce Committee. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN-05), Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY-20) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME-01) have all signed on as original co-sponsors.

When we agree to use social media, one of the things we agree to is the terms and conditions relating to the sharing of our personal information. The price of the free services is that we agree to give up something of value in return, information about our identity being the big one. We do so because the value of the service out-weighs our perception of the value of letting those services create profiles of us and use that as part of their monetization strategies. We also have a sense of security, albeit one that is likely misperceived by most, that adjusting the privacy settings on these sites is enabling us to have much better control over who we are and in some cases where we are and what we are doing. 

The problem that the bill is addressing is that while that is our business, and the business of those whose services we used based on our consent to their terms, others have used the divulging of that personal information as a condition of employment, for background checking, as cause for dismissal or for the denial of benefits. In fact, many think that the type of information obtained from such sites is almost as good if not better than a lie detector test since too many people do not understand:

  1. How easy it is to obtain even supposedly private information
  2. Once on the Web, always on the Web

This is kind of like the “reply to all” feature in e-mail. Once you hit send, it is almost impossible to undo the damage.

What the co-sponsors are hoping is that common sense will prevail. Having organizations use social media, or for that matter any user generated content, as a tool for discrimination and a reason to take punitive action creates an unhealthy environment and degrades the thing the everyone agrees is the foundation for innovation and success, TRUST. Some things really are “personal” and “none of your business.”

There is likely to be a companion bill in the U.S. Senate, which also is likely to be bi-partisan in terms of its support. We shall see if anxiety over the growing number of instances of organizations forcing the divulgence of personal information to use for intimidation, discrimination and punitive actions is enough to get the do nothings to do something. If nothing else, going to the hearings to find out what the objections to such legislation might be should the bill move forward could be worth a trip to Washington, D.C. In fact, hearing the reactions to the re-introduction from the social media companies who are wary of stringent privacy rules being applied to them, as is being contemplated in Europe where they have a different view on such things as a matter of culture and history, but are equally suspicious of having their brand tarnished because the unintended consequences of the popularity of their service has made them tools for what in other circumstances could be construed as abusive practices—could be fascinating.          




Edited by Jamie Epstein



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