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Legislating Goes Social: Lawmakers File Bills Addressing Web Postings

Legislators concerned about online privacy and safety have filed bills that could change the way some Texans use social media. Such regulations are becoming more widespread as states take on questions of online privacy.

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When Democratic state Rep. Helen Giddings entered the Texas Legislature in 1992, no one had heard of social media. In fact, few people owned personal computers, and cell phones were just coming of age.

With the emergence of new technology, legislators have filed a bevy of bills that could change the way some Texans use social media. The measures largely stem from lawmakers' concerns about privacy and safety for Texans who spend an increasingly large portion of their lives online.

“This whole social media phenomenon is so new that as we go along we have to set up these new guidelines to guide us into territories that, up to this point, have been uncharted,” said Giddings.

While social media regulations are becoming more commonplace as states take on questions of online privacy, some experts sound a note of caution to lawmakers attempting to regulate technology that is ever evolving. And a note of caution to social media users: “Everything you do is public, and perhaps forever," said Robert Quigley, a social media expert and senior lecturer in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.

Giddings' proposal, House Bill 318, would “prohibit employers from requiring or requesting access to personal accounts of employees or job applicants through electronic communication devices.” Her proposal would include personal cell phones, computers and social media accounts, such as Facebook or Twitter.

State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, filed an identical bill, SB 118.

Giddings does not have any social media accounts herself, but she said that privacy concerns from her constituents inspired the bill.

“Would someone want a text message read that they might have sent to a friend if they were frustrated with one of their coworkers momentarily?” Giddings said. “Probably not.”

Her bill would protect personal accounts of employees, but it would not apply to devices owned by a company that the employee uses to conduct business.

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, filed a similar bill that would protect students' social media accounts. The bill, HB 451, would restrict academic institutions from accessing students’ social media account passwords. It would also protect students from retaliation from the institution if access to their social networking accounts was not granted.

Other states passed similar legislation in 2012, placing limits on employers and academic institutions seeking social media account access. Maryland, Michigan, Illinois and California have laws that apply to employers, while laws in New Jersey, Michigan, Delaware and California apply to academic institutions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Lawmakers in Missouri and Vermont, along with Texas, have filed social media measures this year.

Caroline Valentine, president of ValentineHR, a human relations consulting firm for small businesses, said that she can understand concerns that both employees and employers may have about social media in the workplace. She said that most of her clients are worried that an employee might say something detrimental about their company online that could affect business.

“We try to help clients understand that you can’t control activities of employees at all times," she said. "They are a reflection of you to a certain point, but they have to have their own lives."  

Valentine recommends that companies set up concrete boundaries about social media use at the office, and that they implement consequences for postings that may portray the company in a bad light. But she said she worried about blanket legislation that could affect companies where social media is a large part of workplace culture. Valentine said companies that ask their employees to use personal networks like Twitter or Facebook for business may have to change their policies and ask employees to create separate work accounts. 

As more jobs directly depend on the use of personal social media accounts, Giddings said that she could see problems arising from prohibiting employer oversight of accounts. But those issues, she said, could be worked out “in some kind of agreement” before an employee is hired.  

Quigley, the social media expert, said employees need to realize that privacy is not guaranteed on the internet, and they shouldn't post things that could get them fired. 

"My advice for someone who applies for a job that wants [account passwords] is to not apply for that job," said Quigley. "That may not be the best place for you anyway." 

At least one lawmaker said he wants to make the virtual world a little safer. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer filed HB 23, which would require registered sex offenders to make information about their offense visible on social networking sites, including the type of offense and the address at which they plan to reside. They would also have to include physical indicators, such as height, age, sex, race, weight, eye color and hair color. Failing to document their status online could result in probation revocation.

“We want to make sure that we are protecting our young and vulnerable,” said Martinez Fischer, adding that sex offender registration should carry over into the “digital sphere.” 

Mary Sue Molnar, director of Texas Voice for Reason and Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for the reform of sex offender laws, said that the bill would do little to actually stop sexual offenses.

“It may sound good and it may feel good, but it will not add to public safety,” said Molnar.

Molnar said that there would be no way to accurately enforce the law, given the large number of different social networking sites and constantly changing technology. She also raised concerns for sex offenders who have “paid their time” and are working to become “productive members of society.” 

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