A new workplace social-networking privacy bill surfaces in Philly

February 27, 2013
By Eric B. Meyer on February 27, 2013 7:00 AM | | Comments

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Philadelphia may be poised now to follow in the footsteps of other states and municipalities that have passed similar laws to regulate what appears to be a non-existent problem.

I'll lay it out for you after the jump...

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This proposed amendment to Title 9 of The Philadelphia Code, entitled "Regulation of Businesses, Trades and Professions," would, in City Council's words, "add a new Chapter, protecting social networking privacy, by prohibiting an employer from requesting or requiring access, in any manner, to an employee's or prospective employee's account or profile on a social networking site and providing for enforcement and penalties, all under certain terms and conditions."

Indeed, this new bill could preclude HR from conducting an effective investigating claims of harassment in the workplace. The bill prohibits employers from requesting access to an employee's Facebook account through a co-worker who is a Facebook friend. 

Consider this hypothetical:

Your employees, Jane and John, are Facebook friends. Jane claims that John has sexually harassed her. You investigate by interviewing Jane. Jane tells you that the sexual harassment consists of posts that Jane viewed on John's Facebook page.

If the Philly bill becomes law, you may not ask Jane to provide you with access to John's Facebook account. Taken further, one could argue that even asking Jane to print out the offensive posts she viewed on John's Facebook page would violate the law.

Arguably, the new bill provides an exception; namely, affording employers the reserved right to obtain information "in compliance with any federal or state law." You'd argue that anti-discrimination laws require an employer to investigate allegations of unlawful harassment and respond in a manner that is reasonably designed to end the harassment. 

Could demanding access to a Facebook account fall within the scope of this employer duty? Unclear. It should be explicit in the bill, as it is under Michigan's social-media privacy law

But then again, hopefully, passage of a bill like the one pending in Philly would not affect most local employers, who already refrain from making egregious password requests.