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Web privacy bill moving forward in Legislature

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Associated Press
August 19, 2013

MADISON, Wis. — A proposal that would make it illegal for Wisconsin employers to ask workers or job applicants to turn over their passwords to social media accounts such as Facebook is moving forward in the Legislature. 

A Senate committee has scheduled a Tuesday hearing on the bill. That comes after an Assembly committee heard the measure in May.

The bill has broad bipartisan support and it could be taken up by the full Legislature as early as next month. 

The movement to pass such laws is gaining steam across the country as employers have asked for employees’ user names and passwords to personal accounts. Some employers argue they need that access to protect proprietary information or trade secrets in order to comply with federal financial regulations.

But others see it as a blatant invasion of employee privacy. 

“It’s not something that’s happened a lot,” said Sen. Glenn Grothman, sponsor of the bill and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that is holding Tuesday’s hearing. 

He said the measure was designed to prevent “a busybody boss or busybody college administrator, or landlord for that matter, from looking at your private account.”

Grothman, R-West Bend, said he hoped to have the full Senate take it up as soon as next month. 

Six states passed laws in 2012 prohibiting requesting or requiring an employee, student or applicant to disclose a user name or password for a personal social media account. Eight additional states passed laws this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Bills were introduced, or are still pending, in the 36 other states, according to NCSL. 

The Wisconsin proposal would place the prohibition on any employer, educational institution or landlord. That would protect any employee, job applicant, student, prospective student, tenant or prospective tenant. It also bars retaliation against any person for refusing to comply with such a request. 

The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development estimates that should the bill become law, an additional 200 complaints would be filed a year alleging violations.

While passwords and user names would remain private, employers could still monitor what is done on a company computer, restrict which websites can be viewed and conduct an investigation into any unauthorized sharing of confidential information through social media sites. 

The bill has support from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce. The statewide chamber, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, has not taken a position on the proposal. But WMC did work with the measure’s sponsors to get changes to address employers’ concerns, said the group’s lobbyist Chris Reader. 

It’s important for employers to be able to investigate employment-related misconduct and that proprietary information stay confidential if housed or transmitted using a personal Internet account, Reader said.

He called the bill “a serious attempt to balance individual privacy concerns with the needs of employers.”

The bill is sponsored by Grothman and Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison.



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