SACRAMENTO -- California is on the verge of becoming one of the first states to bar companies from asking job applicants and employees for their user names and passwords on Facebook, Twitter and other social media websites.
In the wake of national reports of employers doing just that, the Assembly Labor Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill that would make the intimate details behind password-protected "walls" off-limits to employers. The measure is expected to sail through the Legislature with little opposition.
"The effects of gaining access to personal media accounts is no different than an employer reading a personal diary, personal emails or viewing personal home videos," said Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, author of AB 1844.
Gov. Jerry Brown has not taken a position on the bill, which wouldn't prevent employers from surfing social media websites for information that's publicly available.
California's major business groups have thus far been neutral on the legislation. And it wasn't immediately clear whether employers will put up a fight nationally so they can continue to mine personal data such as drinking habits, membership in fringe and racist organizations, or something as simple as a bad attitude toward a boss.
As people continue to bare their souls with tweets and status updates that range from racy to just plain embarrassing, some employers have been tempted to tap into social media outlets.
A recent Maryland case brought national attention to the issue. Robert Collins, a state correctional officer returning from a leave of absence after his mother died, was asked to provide his Facebook user name and password during a recertification interview. After allowing his superior to go through his personal posts in what he described as a humiliating experience, Collins filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union.
"My religious beliefs, my political beliefs, my sexuality, all of these things are possibly disclosed on this page, and it's an absolute and total invasion and overreach and overstep on their part," Collins said in an interview posted on the ACLU's blog.
National surveys have shown that up to 63 percent of employers have reviewed the social media content of employees or job applicants, though it's not clear how many have sought password-protected information.
Eight other states have introduced similar legislation, and two members of Congress have asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to determine whether employers are violating federal privacy laws when they check out social media sites to retrieve information on workers and job applicants.
Some employers have argued that it's necessary to have access to the sites to investigate claims of harassment, other misconduct or disputes between employees.
Jennifer Barrera, a lobbyist for the California Chamber of Commerce (which has not taken a position on the bill), said employers are often caught between respecting privacy rights and the need to fully vet applicants.
"Certainly there are concerns for employers who might get information they weren't looking for that could be the basis for litigation if they find protected information" such as applicants' ages, sexual orientation or other information that employers cannot ask in interviews, Barrera said.
"But a competing issue that employers face is: Does an employer have a duty to investigate social media websites before they hire, and if they don't, will they be charged with negligence" if an employee ever engages in violence against co-workers?
Employers are already prohibited from requiring applicants to submit to lie detectors. But they're allowed to require drug tests and to investigate the credit history of prospective employees, as well as hire investigators to examine applicants' criminal histories and past civil liabilities.
Though it isn't rampant -- at least not yet -- there have been reported cases of employers using software to spy on Facebook profiles and asking that applicants "friend" managers, so they could monitor the applicants' accounts.
Those facing the most Facebook scrutiny so far: law enforcement officers, teachers and college applicants.
Facebook has not taken a position on Campos' bill, but the Menlo Park-based social media giant lauded similar legislation approved by the Maryland Legislature and signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley on Wednesday.
In a blog post, Erin Egan, Facebook's chief privacy officer, deplored the "distressing" increase in reports of employers seeking to gain access to people's profiles.
"As a user, you shouldn't be forced to share your private information and communications just to get a job," Egan wrote. "And as the friend of a user, you shouldn't have to worry that your private information or communications will be revealed to someone you don't know and didn't intend to share with just because that user is looking for a job."