On the battlefield of the Internet, the Privacy Platoon struck a clanging blow against the Transparency Brigade last week, when two members of Congress introduced the Social Networking Online Protection Act. The bill would bar employers from demanding job applicants’ Facebook passwords — which recently has become an issue: The ACLU’s Maryland branch championed the case of a Baltimore man who says he was told that his prospective bosses needed to make sure he wasn’t in a gang.

“We need a federal statute to protect all Americans across the country,” Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), a co-sponsor, wrote on his Web page. “We must draw the line somewhere and define what is private.”

Demanding a Facebook password, as online commenters pointed out, is the virtual equivalent of trespassing on personal property. Public Facebook profiles already invite your acquaintances to a party in your living room — a soiree for which you made sure to tidy the magazines and Febreze the throw pillows. But requiring a password is parallel to your boss jimmying the lock on your bedroom door so that he can riffle through your underwear drawer.

You’re not planning to display your frillies at the office, so why should your boss care whether you have them?

It’s possible that companies angling for your Facebook passwords care less about the undies stashed safely at home than they do about the broken zipper on your pants — the wardrobe malfunction that could result in the whole world staring at your butt.

(Harry Campbell for The Washington Post)

The issue isn’t merely that we don’t know how to define what is private. It’s that we’re deeply afraid privacy can’t exist anymore.

Offline, it’s more difficult for the things marked as private to suddenly become public. The comments you make in your locked bedroom cannot be snatched out of the air, then cut and pasted into a status update. They cannot be forwarded. Online, even private messages have a way of de-privatizing themselves, whether through intentional vindictiveness or the accidental “reply all.” The only true rule of the Internet, after multiple decades of the Internet’s existence, is that if you don’t want something to become public there, then you shouldn’t put it there to begin with.

Facebook passwords become not only keys to our private lives, but also barometers for our self-regulation. How careless are we with our words online, in private spaces that could easily become public? How well do we understand the difference between things that can be typed and things that should only be whispered? The question of password access is like a boss demanding a house key, but it’s also like a boss demanding a sobriety test — except that, instead of driving erratically, applicants have done nothing but express interest in a job.

It’s not right, of course — it’s technically against Facebook’s own user agreements — or even logical. In this muddy soup of public and private, the savviest potential employees are the ones who understand that the boundary between the two must be absolute. No exceptions. Keys should never be lent out, not to trusted friends, not to underwear connoisseurs, not to people who could pay your salary and give you health insurance.

“May I have your Facebook password?”


“Congratulations. You get the job.”

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