Hawaii Law Would Ban Employer Access to Social Media Accounts

Social Media GavelTwo Hawaii Senate committees this week advanced a bill that would forbid employers from demanding that their employees (or potential employees) turn over the passwords to their Facebook and other social media accounts.

Hawaii is one of 32 states advancing similar bills this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. House Bill 713 passed out of the Commerce and Consumer Protection and Technology and the Arts committees yesterday, and is now headed for the Judiciary committee.

Despite the bill’s advancement, some opposition remains, and there’s apparently some confusion over whether the law affects the ability to review content posted publicly, versus content that’s only available to the person in question (such as private messages).

“The passage of this bill will impede the ability for law enforcement agencies to conduct thorough and extensive background checks on prospective police officer applicants,” said the Maui Police Department in its testimony opposing HB713. “The Maui Police Department is not asking to be granted all aspects of individual personal media accounts, such as personal passwords, but to amend this bill to allow law enforcement agencies the authority to ask applicants questions regarding their association to individual social media sites and their use of usernames or other related names on these accounts.”

The Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii also expressed “serious concerns” about the bill.

“We understand that several high profile cases that happened on the mainland brought this issue forward, however, we do not believe that this is a prevalent problem in Hawaii,” the Chamber said. “We appreciate the intent of the bill but we believe that it needs more discussion before moving forward.”

But there’s no confusion as far as the ACLU of Hawaii is concerned.

“This law is necessary because the privacy line should be clear: any communications not intended to be viewable by the general public are out of bounds for all employers, including law enforcement,” the civil rights group said. “Private activities that would never be intruded upon offline should not receive less privacy protection simply because they take place online.”

The Hawaii Civil Rights Commission suggested amendments that would keep the bill out of its specific jurisdiction. But it also points out that other laws override the issue over whether passwords are provided or not.

“Of course, under current law if an employer uses access to social media, whether authorized by an applicant/employee or not, to screen out or discriminate on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, age, religion, ancestry, or any other protected basis, that would be a prohibited practice,” the commission testified.

Ryan Ozawa

Ryan Kawailani Ozawa has immersed himself in new technologies and online communities since the days before the web. From running a dial-up BBS in the early '90s to exploring today’s dynamic world of "Web 2.0" and social media, he has long embraced and evangelized the ways in which technology can bring people together.