It’s Illegal To Ask For Passwords in California

Residents of California can all breathe a little easier now.

Gov. Jerry Brown has declared it illegal for employers to ask for access to the social media and email accounts of employees and job applicants. Assembly Bill 1844 has been called a “preemptive measure,” protecting citizen’s freedom of speech and right to privacy behind what the author of the bill calls a “social media law.”

Employees are not the only ones who will get protection from the roving eyes of institutions. Senate Bill 1349 was also passed into law, protecting university and college students from having to hand in their social media and email passwords.

In recent years, college students have found out that their social footprint has influenced their college acceptance in a way that their SAT score couldn’t. Students who looked great on paper were now judged by how well they would fit in with the culture of a college.

As social media use exploded in the 2010s, so did the concern over privacy.

Rumors over employers monitoring social media use and demanding access to passwords grew.  People began to get fired for not providing their passwords. Slowly, a sense of dread began to overtake employees. Like a zombie apocalypse, they saw it coming and knew that it was just a matter of time before it would overtake them.

The downside to new media is just that – it’s new. The rules are still being written.

While people are becoming more comfortable sharing their lives online, it is apparent that they also want to limit just how much is shared. No one wants to be judged by their poorly thought out tweet or private email messages.

Savvy employees have turned into their own PR representatives, making sure that the brand they are projecting will not get them into hot water at work. Others have stood up for their freedom of speech, demanding that they be judged not over their words, but their actions.

“Social Media Scrub” packages have sprung up across the Internet, allowing users to clean up their footprints in ways that will make them more appealing (or at least potentially less offensive) to those they are trying to get approval from.

But is that right?

Many people would argue that it’s wrong. Let people have their freedom of speech. Don’t judge. Let work speak for itself. While idealistic, the problem is that words will always have consequences.

As the lines between work and play, public and private continue to blur, perhaps the best advice anyone can give is to not say anything in private that you’d be embarrassed to admit in public. Many users are learning these lessons the hard way.

On Sept. 27, 2012, California became the fourth state to sign social media privacy legislation into law, following Illinois, Delaware, and Maryland.

The Password Protection Act is making its way through the House of Representatives. If passed, it will prohibit employers from retaliating against employees – current or potential – for refusing access to personal accounts. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are 14 other states drafting legislation to protect the social media rights of their citizen’s.

The Californian Governor echoed the sentiments of many outraged citizens when he signed the bill, promising that the twin laws will “protect all Californians from unwarranted invasions of their personal social-media accounts.”

Perhaps as a sign of the times, Gov. Brown announced he would pass these laws via social media. He chose five popular outlets – including the newly revived MySpace – to send a message that the individual has a right to privacy, even on social media.

Both laws will take effect on Jan. 1 and include exceptions for investigations of misconduct.

What do you think about the legislation? Do you have “rules” for your social media usage?

Caitlin Muir is a Social Media Manager in Austin, Texas.