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Social media privacy bill advances in Florida Senate

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The Florida Senate’s committee on Commerce & Tourism has  advanced legislation to prevent companies from asking employees for their Facebook or Twitter passwords.

The panel on Monday approved SB 186, sponsored by Lake Worth state Sen. Jeff Clemens, which explicitly prohibits employers from requiring access to the private social media accounts of workers or prospective hires.

“The issue is, you’re putting somebody in a very uncomfortable position who is interviewing for a job, and they have a choice of giving you the password or walking away from a potential job,” said Clemens responding to a question from fellow Democratic colleague state Sen. Geraldine Thompson.

“We want everybody to be employed, and that’s a pretty difficult choice. That’s a pretty difficult position to put those folks in,” testified Clemens.

Clemens said the problem was widespread enough that 30 states have adopted a law similar to his bill.

Anticipating concerns from the business community — which did materialize later in the hearing — Clemens said that employers already have plenty of data to go on when it comes to prospective hires and that requiring a worker or candidate to hand over the keys to their private Internet life is superfluous and overly invasive.

State Sen. Jack Latvala –– something of an across-the-aisle political ally of Clemens — said such a requirement on the part of employees would be akin to asking to access an employee’s personal email, a description Clemens said was accurate.

“It’s akin to not only looking at your private email, but maybe coming to your house and looking at the mail that comes to your mailbox as well,” Clemens said.

A lobbyist with Associated Industries of Florida, a generally conservative consortium of pro-business interests, testified in opposition to the bill, citing concerns over liability to employers.

Brewster Bevis told the seven-member panel the group opposes Clemens’ measure “Primarily because we believe an employer could be held legally responsible for any information or anything that’s done” on company-owned equipment.”

Bevis said the measure might also impede internal investigations on employees and create a “safe haven” for employees to steal intellectual property from employers, which they could transfer to private social media platforms the law would make inaccessible to bosses.

Chairwoman state Sen. Nancy Detert suggested a tweak in response to allay those concerns — by which the prohibition on social media surveillance applied only to prospective but not current employees — though she also pushed back against the business group for a perceived overreach into the private lives of workers.

“[Employers] can still check your public Facebook page, they’re gonna have your credit report… they have access to a whole lot of information,” said Detert, a Sarasota Republican who recently announced she will soon step down to seek a seat on the Sarasota County Commission.

“You’re for protecting trade secrets and everything for business, but you’re also for invading a person’s personal space, as far as I’m concerned,” Detert intoned.

“Are you not going to get a job because you have pictures of yourself in a bathing suit, or drinking beer?” asked Detert, who implied strongly the AIF was overlooking privacy concerns by their opposition to the bill.

The bill passed with only state Sen. Garrett Richter casting a ‘No’ vote. It moves on next to the Judiciary Committee before hitting Rules.

Clemens has carried the bill in years past. He said Monday the bill has gained significant traction in the Senate, though not as much in the more thoroughgoingly pro-employer House.

So far, the bill has not yet garnered a House companion bill.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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