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Social Networking Online Protection Act (SNOPA)

In the midst of huge controversy regarding the intersection of privacy and technology, particularly when it comes to private life in the public online scene, federal lawmakers have recently introduced a bill aimed to protect employees and students from misguided and privacy-invasive practices. This article looks at the Social Networking Online Protection Act (SNOPA), the latest effort by the US federal government to protect people from such practices.

Introducing the SNOPA

In mid-April 2012, federal lawmakers Rep. Jan Schakowsky (Illinois) and Rep. Eliot Engel (New York) introduced a bill entitled the Social Networking Online Protection Act (SNOPA) to Congress regarding protecting people from employers and educational institutions from snooping around in their social media accounts.

If it is passed, the SNOPA would “prohibit current and potential employers from requiring a username, password or other access to online content.” The bill would apply these restrictions on current or potential employers, as well as colleges, universities and K-12 schools.

Rep. Schakowsky commented,

“I am proud to be an original cosponsor of this legislation. The American people deserve the right to keep their personal accounts private. No one should have to worry that their personal account information, including passwords, can be required by an employer or educational institution, and if this legislation is signed into law, no one will face that possibility.”

The author of the bill, Rep. Engel said,

“Several states, including New York, have begun addressing this issue, but we need a federal statute to protect all Americans across the country. We must draw the line somewhere and define what is private. No one would feel comfortable going to a public place and giving out their username and passwords to total strangers. They should not be required to do so at work, at school, or while trying to obtain work or an education. This is a matter of personal privacy and makes sense in our digital world.”

A number of vocal civil rights and privacy advocates have deemed the practice of employers requesting employees’ social networking passwords as invasive as requiring applicants and employees to hand over the keys to their homes, or to provide consent for an in-home search.

“Passwords are the gateway to many avenues containing personal and sensitive content – including email accounts, bank accounts and other information,” pointed out Rep. Engel.

Legal experts have also argued that requiring password access to an applicant or employee’s accounts is not just a violation of that individual’s privacy, but a possible violation for every friend attached to that person.

Protecting Student Rights

The proposed Act would render it illegal for educational institutions to require a potential or current student to divulge personal online information as part of the enrollment or discipline process. This is currently a controversial practice done by universities to digitally track their students’ activities.

According to a statement from Rep. Eliot L. Engel, “These coercive practices are unacceptable, and should be halted. We have to draw a line between what is publicly available information, and what is personal, private content. I think we would all object to having to turn over usernames and passwords for email accounts, or even worse, to bank accounts. User-generated social media content should be no different.”

If passed, the SNOPA would prohibit an educational institution from requiring potential or current students from divulging “a user name, password, or any other means of accessing a private account,” comments Engel, or from “disciplining, discriminating or denying enrollment… should a student decline to provide the information.”

Nothing New…

This isn’t the first time a bill like the SNOPA has been proposed. In light of major controversy regarding social media credentials, a bill was introduced in the Maryland state legislature in early February 2012. The bill set out to prohibit schools from requiring students to provide information (e.g. usernames, passwords), or to install monitoring software on their computers. It also prohibited schools from requiring students to allow compliance officers or administrators to be their Facebook friends or to have their protected tweets followed.

While the Maryland bill would apply to all students, its primary focus is on protecting student-athletes. According to Bradley S. Shear, a Bethesda-based lawyer who works in social media and sports law, “It’s very scary. Any which way you swing it, it’s the same goal for the institution: to get access. It’s a constitutional problem.”

Summary

The Social Networking Online Protection Act (SNOPA) was introduced into Congress in mid-April 2012. If passed, it would prohibit current or potential employers from requiring access to employees’ or applicants’ online content. It bars employers from demanding such access to discipline, discriminate or deny employment to individuals, and from punishing refusal to volunteer such information. The SNOPA would also apply the same restrictions to educational institutions (i.e. colleges, universities and K-12 schools).

CIPP Exam Preparation

In preparation for the Certified Information Privacy Professional/Information Technology (CIPP/IT) exam and the Certification Foundation Course and Exam (Foundations), a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:

  • Privacy expectations – consumer perspective, organizational practices (CIPP/IT; II.A.a.; II.A.b.)
  • Online security (Foundations; III.B.d.)
  • Privacy and email – commercial email (Foundations; III.B.i.i.)
  • Online social media and social networking services (Foundations; III.k.i.)
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