Gov. Jerry Brown signed two bills into law Thursday that ban California employers and universities from requesting access to applicants’ social media accounts, making California the state with the strictest social media privacy laws.
Assembly Bill 1844, written by Assemblywoman Nora Campos, prohibits employers from asking for social media usernames and passwords from current employees and job candidates. Senate Bill 1349, written by Senator Leland Yee, prohibits public and private California universities from asking students or prospective students to disclose their usernames and passwords.
Appropriately, Brown announced the signing of the two measures on his Twitter account.
California is the fourth state to enact such a ban. Earlier this year, Maryland and Illinois passed laws protecting worker privacy, and Delaware passed a similar law for students. California, however, is the first state to apply the ban to both employers and universities.
Brown said he saw California as a trendsetter in the matter.
“California pioneered the social media revolution,” Brown posted on Facebook. “These laws protect Californians from unwarranted invasions of their social media accounts.”
Karen North, director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities and an expert in social media and Internet privacy, agreed with the governor.
“We are so big and powerful in California, we can be precedent-setting,” North said. “The rest of the country looks to us to make decisions about the digital experience.”
Close to a dozen states around the country are currently considering their own social media privacy bills, including New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. The bills are especially relevant in the middle of an era of increasing social media presence in college and job applications.
Some companies require candidates to undergo “shoulder surfing” — systematically clicking through their Facebook account under the supervision of an employer — during interviews. A few colleges, such as the University of North Carolina, also require student-athletes to give their Facebook passwords to school officials.
According to North, companies and universities want to use social media to get an “accurate representation” of potential candidates.
“If they can peer into the individual’s private life — the life that is not influenced by professional pressures — they can get a better sense of who the applicant is,” North said.
The bills, however, do not prohibit companies or universities from looking up applicants online or from viewing applicant’s Facebook profiles if they are public.
North said she would still advise that regardless of new legislation, students to be wary of what they post online.
“Anything you do on social media, you should consider it to be public,” she said. “It’s way too easy these days [for companies] to see your digital imprint on the world.”
Some students, such as Chris Lee, a junior majoring in business administration, agreed with the bills with a few caveats.
“I don’t want USC or any other school invading my privacy, but they should still be able to check for stuff that might harm the university,” Lee said.
In fact, employers can still ask for social media information if it is relevant to an investigation and colleges can still “protect against and investigate alleged student misconduct or violations of applicable laws and regulations,” according to SB 1349.
When asked if he would still attend USC if the school required him to divulge his Facebook password, Lee was hesitant.
“Probably not,” he said. “But maybe for a job I would.”
Come Jan. 1, that should not be a problem.