House likes Facebook bill

A bill that would prohibit employers from social media snooping passed the state House of Representatives this week and advanced to the state Senate.

Introduced by South Maui Rep. Kaniela Ing, House Bill 713 would protect the online privacy of employees and job seekers by making it illegal for employers – except for law enforcement agencies – to require or request workers or applicants to disclose their user name or password for personal social media, such as Facebook.

The aim of the legislation is to update privacy laws for the 21st century, Ing said.

It’s common practice for employers to visit Facebook and Twitter accounts of employees or job applicants, he said. And, while people should expect online background checks and be cautious about what they post online, “demanding password information is another story . . . There is currently no law to protect employees or students against such actions.”

The measure maintains employers’ existing rights to require an employee to divulge a personal account reasonably believed to be relevant to an investigation of employee misconduct or illegal activity.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii submitted testimony last month in favor of the measure.

“A growing number of employers are demanding that job applicants and employees hand over the passwords to their private social networking accounts, such as Facebook,” the ACLU said. “Such demands constitute a grievous invasion of privacy. Private activities that would never be intruded upon offline should not receive less privacy protection simply because they take place online.

“It is inconceivable that an employer would be permitted to read an applicant’s diary or postal mail, listen in on the chatter at their private gatherings with friends or look at their private videos and photo albums. Nor should they expect the right to do the electronic equivalent,” the ACLU said.

Ing said that requiring employees or job applicants to provide access to their social media accounts is like demanding “control of an employee’s house keys, then rummaging through their belongings or by invading their privacy by opening and perusing their mail.”

The ACLU said social media snooping by employers may reveal information about a job applicant – such as his or her age, religion or ethnicity – which an employer is forbidden to ask.

“That can expose an applicant to unlawful discrimination and subject an employer to lawsuits from rejected job applicants claiming such discrimination,” the ACLU said.

Maui Police Chief Gary Yabuta submitted testimony early last month opposing an earlier version of the bill, because he said it blocked law enforcement agencies from conducting a thorough background check on applicants for police officer positions.

“A police applicant’s background check should be extensive and thorough, as we the public will be putting our trust in this future officer for the protection of our respective communities,” he said. “A check on their social media accounts would reveal a lot about an applicant’s personal traits.”

The ACLU called for deleting the law enforcement exception later inserted into the bill.

“Law enforcement agencies will still retain access to all publicly available information,” it pointed out. “Should we allow a law enforcement agency to require applicants to open up their diaries so the agency can read them, so long as the agency doesn’t ask for the key? How about applicants’ email or regular mail? Law enforcement and government employees do not check their right to have a personal life just because of their vocation.”

The Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii submitted testimony with “serious concerns” about the bill and called for more study.

“We do not believe that this is a prevalent problem in Hawaii,” the chamber said.

In Tuesday’s House vote on the measure, four representatives voted “aye, with reservations,” and three voted no.

Another measure introduced by Ing and four other House members, House Bill 321, that would permit voter registration on election days at polls, also advanced from the state House to the state Senate.

And a measure to prohibit smoking on public beaches appears dead this session. House Bill 325 introduced by Ing and three other House members was referred to committee but was not scheduled for hearings.

* Brian Perry can be reached at