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Proposed law targets companies snooping on social networking sites

A German proposal to stop employers from screening current or potential workers on private Internet sites could prove difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. Yet data protection experts laud the move.

Lock on keyboard as symbol for data protection

Online protection for current and potential employees

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has drafted a new law on data privacy that, among other things, will clamp down on the information companies can legally collect on employees from social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace.

The German cabinet is expected to approve the draft bill on Wednesday. It must then go before parliament for debate and a final vote.

Germany to take the lead

If the bill is passed into law, Germany will become the first country to slap legal restrictions on the use of personal information in private social networking sites. The law, however, will continue to allow companies to look at sites, such as LinkedIn, that are expressly designed to help people market themselves to potential employers.

A 2009 survey by Career Builder indicated that 45 percent of polled employers looked at the Facebook profiles of potential applicants and 35 percent of these employers rejected applicants because of their findings.

Facebook logo with people at computers

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Data experts say the proposed law will be nearly impossible to enforce for job-seekers.

"You can hardly stop a company from snooping on Facebook and other private social networking sites," Yvette Reif, deputing managing director of the German Society for Data Protection and Security (GDD), told Deutsche Welle. "There is no way to police this activity. Companies don't have to tell job-seekers why they didn't get the job."

Professional sites not affected

However, the situation is slightly different for those already with an employer. The proposed law would give employees greater protection, providing they can prove that collected information stemmed from a private social networking site, according to Reif.

"German labor law already requires that information about an employee is legally obtained," Reif said. "If an employee can prove that information contained in an employer warning was obtained from a private social network – which would be illegal under the draft law – then any action taken against an employee is impermissible."

Reif believes the law will send a signal to companies in Germany, even if it lacks sufficient control mechanisms in the case of jobseekers.

Video camera and Deutsche Bahn logo symbolizing breach of data protection laws

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The privacy law also bans employers from using videos to monitor employees in personal areas, such as bathrooms, changing rooms and break areas. And it requires them to inform employees if certain other areas are under video surveillance.

Series of scandals

The draft legislation follows a series of scandals in Germany involving management spying on staff. Some of the more high-profile examples includes the state-owned German railway Deutsche Bahn, the telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom and the discount retail chain Lidl.

Online data privacy has become a sensitive issue in Germany. The government is working on separate legislation to deal with privacy concerns relating to Google's Street View service.

Author: John Blau
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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