R.I. politicians propose social media privacy legislation

Bill prevents employers and schools from demanding social media contact information

Contributing Writer
Thursday, February 20, 2014

Many other states are considering similar bills to protect the privacy rights of individuals in the technology age.

Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, D-Providence and North Providence, and Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy, D-Hopkinton and Westerly, introduced legislation to limit the information employers and schools can obtain from social media sites, according to a General Assembly press release.

The bill prohibits employers and educational institutions from penalizing an employee or student for refusing to disclose social media information, divulging the personal social media contact information of its students or employees or compelling an employee or student to divulge any information regarding their personal social media account, according to the press release.

Kennedy said he believes legislation needs to grow alongside technology, because the privacy of individuals suffers if it falls behind.  “As more and more people use social media sites, it becomes even more important that we have laws in place to ensure their privacy and prevent outside parties — such as employers and universities — from requiring access to that personal information,” Kennedy said.

“Even in an age of rampant social media and instant access to most everything, individuals have a right to share their personal thoughts with whom they choose. There must be a presumption of privacy in certain areas of social media interaction, and account holders — whether students applying to a new school or job applicants — should not be threatened or coerced into providing certain private information,” Ruggerio said, according to the press release.

Additionally, the law would allow federal regulatory agencies to access information about employees working in regulated industries, Kennedy said.

The legislation introduced by Ruggerio and Kennedy is not the first of its kind. Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and California have introduced similar privacy laws to limit the access of schools and businesses to online personal data, the New York Times reported. Some of these laws include provisions imposing punishments on people who post pornographic images online without the subject’s consent and requiring warrants for records of e-mail searches.

The primary federal law protecting students’ educational privacy, the Family Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, was enacted in 1974 and has not been amended since 2001, according to the website of attorney Bradley Shear, who specializes in social media privacy litigation. Though the legislation has been effective, some critics say the federal government is not doing enough to amend laws for the digital age.

Some problems with the federal legislation include its failure to account for third-party access to student information through social media sites like Facebook or Google Plus, which can lead to both privacy violations and the use of private data for financial gain, according to Shear’s website.

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in July concluded that “Most Americans … believed that existing laws were inadequate to protect their privacy online, and a clear majority reported making great efforts to mask their identities online,” according to the Times articles.

“I think that in the increasingly digital world that we live in — where we are communicating online in a lot of scenarios — privacy is always a concern and that is a sentiment that is shared with a lot of students,” said Todd Harris ’14.5, Undergraduate Council of Students president.

The same legislation passed in the Rhode Island House of Representatives last year but never went to the Senate floor, Kennedy said. This year, Kennedy said he was assured by Ruggerio that the bill would be brought to the Senate floor with enough support to pass.

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