Bills would protect employees’ social media accounts and provide more online privacy

DOVER — Under Delaware law, any company manager can demand a worker hand over his or her Facebook account information or face retribution.

Not a Facebook user? Just substitute Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest — whatever.

Although the issue has appeared in the news as social media has blossomed in popularity in recent years — at least 17 states have employee social media privacy laws — Delaware has not yet prohibited employers from mandating workers provide account access.

House Bill 109 would change that.

The bill is one of four pieces of legislation introduced over the past two weeks dealing with online privacy. All four bills have at least some level of bipartisan support, and all four are backed by Attorney General Matthew P. Denn.

Announced at a news conference back in April, the proposals concern data collected by schools, confidential address information and the marketing of certain products not intended for children.

House Bill 109 would bar employers from requiring employees or applicants to turn over their social media passwords. It also would protect workers from being forced to show a boss their account.

“More and more, people are including a lot of personal information on their social media sites. Giving an employer or potential employer access to those accounts is akin to letting a stranger read your personal journal,” Rep. Bryon Short, D-Arden, the main sponsor of the bill, said in a statement.

“It’s a fine line to walk between respecting a company’s right to know whether an employee is potentially causing harm to the business through their social media behavior and forcing a worker to give access to his or her sites. This bill respects both the employee and employer and will be an important step forward in social media privacy.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that in addition to the states that have passed privacy policies, more than two dozen others have proposed legislation dealing with social media protection.

David Farber, distinguished policy fellow in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Delaware, called House Bill 109 an important step and said students should be protected as well.

Some schools have monitored their students online and punished them for remarks judged to be offensive, although Mr. Farber said courts have typically ruled against the schools in those cases.

Another bill — Senate Bill 68, the longest of the four — is intended to provide greater protection for Internet users and to prohibit targeting children with certain products deemed inappropriate. Operators of websites directed to children (defined as those under age 18) are prohibited from marketing tobacco, firearms, tattoos, lottery-related items, drug paraphernalia and other materials.

Web hosts who know children are using their sites may not target a child “if the marketing or advertising is directed to the child based upon the child’s personally identifiable information.”

The bill also would make it a crime to allow any personally identifiable information to be collected if it will be used to advertise the restricted products.

A separate provision of the bill would require web hosts who collect personal information for commercial reasons to indicate who that data could be given or sold to.

However, Mr. Farber said the prohibition on marketing to children could be hard to enforce.

Senate Bill 79 seeks to protect students by requiring the Department of Education and local education entities keep student data safe. Under the purview of the proposal, the data would be stored in a protected fashion where students cannot be publicly identified from it and parents have the right to request a copy of their child’s information.

Mr. Farber said while Senate Bill 79 may have noble intentions, it will be important for the Department of Education to ensure data is protected.

Both districts that outsource record-keeping and those that store data themselves must be wary of vulnerabilities, Mr. Farber said, noting files must be password-protected and encrypted.

The final piece of legislation in the quartet would expand the Delaware Address Confidentiality Program. Available to certain witnesses of crimes and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, the program seeks to keep safe those who fear retaliation or further harm.

House Bill 102 would make it a crime to provide the image, phone number or address of anyone in the program with the intent to threaten or harm the participant.

“It is our responsibility to provide adequate protection for those who are victims of — or witness to — a crime so that they do not feel intimidated or threatened,” sponsor Rep. Michael Barbieri, D-Newark, said in a statement. “This is a first step. We must work hard to make sure we foster the idea of a safe community where intimidation is not tolerated.”

Carl Kanefsky, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said the bills are largely building on existing practices and are somewhat modeled after laws passed as templates in other states. They came about through a combination of efforts from Mr. Denn and from legislators, with lawmakers adding concerns to Mr. Denn’s already existing list of priorities.

House Bills 109 and 102 have been released from committee and will likely be voted on by the full chamber today.

Although Delaware may not be as far along in protecting the privacy and safety of Internet users as some states, Mr. Farber thinks the bills are a “good start” in that field. He does not expect them to face strong opposition but said the trouble comes in amendments that could water down the bills and speculated firearms will be removed from the list of restricted materials.

“The devil is in the details as they go to committees and people put in their favorite things, but if they stay intact they’re an example for other states,” he said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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