House Republicans on Wednesday defeated an amendment that would have banned current or prospective employers from requiring workers to hand over personal passwords as a condition of keeping or getting a new job.
"What this amendment does is it says that you cannot demand, as a condition of employment, that somebody reveal a confidential password to their Facebook, to their Flickr, to their Twitter, whatever their account may be," Rep. Ed Perlmutter, the Colorado Democrat who authored the amendment, said during a Wednesday floor speech.
The amendment, however, which was added to a larger FCC reform package, was defeated this afternoon by a vote of 236 to 185. It was largely split down party lines, with 183 Democrats voting in favor of the amendment and 234 Republicans voting against it.
The issue made headlines recently when it was reported that some employers were asking workers or applicants to hand over their Facebook passwords or allow employers to look over their shoulders as they clicked through their accounts. The publicity over the issue prompted Facebook to step up and say the practice was against its terms of service.
In an interview with PCMag today, Fred Wolens, Facebook's public policy manager, said the company opted to make a public statement because "there were a lot of questions and implications that I'm not sure employers were considering when engaging in these practices."
Chief among them, he said, was the fact that by signing into an employee's Facebook account, employers were not only gaining access to their worker's account but the accounts of friends who showed up on the newsfeed.
"You're very fundamentally breaking the privacy of not just [your employee] but their friends," Wolens said.
There's also a liability issue, he continued. A Facebook profile might contain information about disability or pregnancy status, which could open a company up to employee discrimination suits.
"We give users control [over their information], and when you give away your password, it fundamentally changes your relationship with Facebook," Wolens said. "Employers would not ask people for their email passwords or bank account statement, and I think the implications are very similar, if not the same, to peoples' Facebook passwords."
Late last week, Sens. Chuck Schumer and Richard Blumenthal asked the Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate whether employee password requests violate federal law. Wolens said today that Facebook looks forward "to engaging with lawmakers on this issue."
Rep. Perlmutter suggested that employers don't need access to Facebook accounts. Traditional means of checking references and doing background checks are sufficient, he said today. They can "do it as themselves - not as imposters," he said.
But for today, at least, the issue will not be resolved in Congress. As noted by TechCrunch, Republicans were not convinced the amendment was necessary, but said they would be open to addressing the issue in separate legislation.