Earlier this year, we posted about new laws in Utah and New Mexico that limit employers' ability to access the online accounts of their employees. Since then, Washington and Colorado have joined these and other states, such as Maryland, Illinois, California, Michigan, that have enacted similar laws. Oregon and New Jersey appear to be not far behind regulating employers in this area.
Increasingly, employers across the country will need to revisit some of the hiring and monitoring practices they may be following, in particular, those of lower level managers and supervisors who may not be aware of these developments. Companies also need to reconsider what role they want employees to play in the businesses' marketing strategies in social media.
Colorado. Governor John Hickenlooper signed HB 13-1046 into law on May 11, 2013. Under the new law, employers may not "suggest, request or require" or cause employees or applicants to (i) disclose the means of accessing the employees or applicants' personal account or service through the employees or applicants' electronic communication device, or (ii) change their privacy settings for an associated social networking account. An employer also may not compel an employee or applicant to become a friend, contact or connection of the employer or the employer's agent. Employers may not fail or refuse to hire applicants, or discipline or otherwise penalize employees, who refuse to provide access to their personal accounts or add the employers to their contacts.
The good news for employers is that the law does not prohibit them from requiring employees to provide access, including user name and password, to non-personal accounts or services that allow access to employers' information systems. The law also does not prohibit certain employers (those in certain industries (e.g., securities, finance) who have to comply with certain regulatory requirements) from conducting investigations concerning the use of personal websites, web-based accounts or similar accounts by an employee for business purposes. The same is true for investigations involving the unauthorized downloading of employer proprietary or financial information to a personal website, web-based account or similar account.
The new Colorado law does not provide for a private right of action, but injured persons may file a complaint with the Department of Labor and Employment, which may impose fines of up to $1,000 for a first offense, and not more than $5,000 for subsequent offenses.
Washington. Gov. Jay Inslee signed a similar law (SB 5211) on May 21, 2013, that contains restrictions on employers concerning the personal online accounts of their employees. The law also contains similar exceptions concerning employee investigations. The law becomes effective on July 28, 2013.
Oregon. Last week, the Oregon legislature sent HB 2654 to the Governor's desk for signature. Like the two measures above, the law would prohibit employers from requiring or requesting access to the personal social media accounts of employees or applicants, as well as prohibiting employers from requiring employees or applicants to make the employer a contact or connection of the employer. Unlike the laws discussed above, the current version of the bill does not include an investigation exception.
New Jersey. Responding to Governor Chris Christie's concerns about a prior version of the bill (such as objecting to a provision that would have made it illegal to ask an employee if he or she has a Facebook account), the New Jersey General Assembly recently approved unanimously modifications to A2878, making it virtually certain to become law in New Jersey in the short term. The Governor has already signed a similar law protecting access to the social media accounts of university students and applicants.
Similar to the laws described above, A2878 would prohibit employers from requiring or requesting employees or applicants to disclose login information for their personal social media accounts. The law also proscribes retaliating or discriminating against any employee or applicant who fails to provide such information, reports a violation of the law, participates in an investigation or otherwise opposes a violation of the law. However, the new version of the law no longer provides for a private right of action, but civil penalties can be imposed for violations - up to $1,000 for the first violation, $2,500 for each subsequent violation.