Moving to the forefront of social media privacy law nationwide, the Maryland General Assembly has passed legislation prohibiting employers in the state from asking current and prospective employees for their user names and passwords to websites such as Facebook and Twitter.

If Gov. Martin O'Malley signs the bill — his office said it was one of hundreds of bills it has yet to review — the bill would make Maryland the first state in the nation to set such a restriction into law. Other states are considering similar legislation, including Illinois and California.

The bill, drafted in response to a state agency's scouring the personal Facebook posts of prison guard applicants, also could be a bellwether for federal action. Two U.S. senators — Chuck Schumer of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, both Democrats — have asked the Department of Justice and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate the issue.

"Right now we protect our physical homes, but it's my thought that we need to protect our digital homes," said Bradley Shear, a Bethesda social media attorney who advised state legislators on drafting of the bill. Shear said federal law is indeed needed to address the problem because "the Internet knows no bounds."

But while Facebook criticized the practice of employers viewing employees' personal accounts and civil libertarians hailed the state legislation, business groups including the Maryland Chamber of Commerce pointed out that there may be instances when an employer needs to access such accounts. Some employers say that what potential hires post on social media pages could provide useful information to weed out unwanted candidates.

The bill in Maryland passed unanimously in the Senate and by a wide margin in the House of Delegates last week, and lawmakers successfully reconciled the bills before the legislative session ended Monday at midnight.

Del. Shawn Tarrant, a Democrat from Baltimore City who was one of the bill's lead sponsors in the House, called the practice of employers asking for employees' passwords "ridiculous," and compared it to employers' eavesdropping on private phone conversations.

"No one has the right to know what they're talking about," Tarrant said...