On Thursday, the lead story at the Bozeman, Montana Daily Chronicle newspaper read "City requires Facebook passwords from job applicants". The newspaper article read: “As part of routine background checks, the city was asking job applicants to provide their usernames and passwords for their social-networking sites. And it has been doing it for years, city officials said on Thursday.“
The story also aired on local TV station KBZK on Wednesday, and by Thursday both stories were part of an international incident on Facebook, Twitter, Slashdot, Reddit, Cnet, and several British tabloids. At the heart of the uproar was a requirement included on a waiver statement applicants had to sign, giving the City of Bozeman permission to conduct an investigation into the person’s "background, references, character, past employment, education, credit history, criminal or police records."
Many groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights organization, derided the requirement. "I think it’s indefensibly invasive and likely illegal as a violation of the First Amendment rights of job applicants," EFF attorney Kevin Bankston told CNET News earlier this week. "Essentially, they’re conditioning your application for employment on your waiving your First Amendment rights…and risking the security of your information by requiring you to share your password with them…Where does it stop? How about a photocopy of your diary?"
The Tempest in a Teapot went onto high boil and Bozeman’s bureaucrats started taking a beating. The Bozeman’s Daily Chronicle comments section had listed the business email address of the city leaders, which were passed along by all the social networks. By mid-afternoon on Thursday, the email responses were coming in faster than they could be read. One a minute – that was the rate at which emails were landing in the email inbox belonging to the City of Bozeman’s attorney, per KBZK TV.
Early Friday morning, Bozeman city officials held a 90 minute, closed door, meeting with city staff to discuss the controversy that had erupted over the policy. Wouldn’t you have loved to have been a fly on the wall? You could have watched the finger pointing by the frustrated bosses saying ‘who got us into this mess and how do we get out of it?’
Resident Michael Becker had some very pointed comments about the legality of the city requirements versus the Terms of Service set by the top international social network players. He said “first of all it is a violation of Facebook’s and MySpace’s terms of service. Both of them prohibit giving out your password to a third party, right in the terms of service, the ones you agreed upon when you signed up for the site. So that’s not illegal, but it is a violation of their terms of service. So by giving your password to the City of Bozeman, you’re placing your account in jeopardy.”
Acting Mayor Jeff Krauss said he expects the Bozeman City Commission will be reviewing the city’s hiring manual line by line. “We might want to see what other interesting things are in there that we might have to address,” he told the Daily Chronicle on Thursday.
After Friday morning’s meeting, Bozeman’s bureaucrats folded their cards and took the looses in this high stakes card game. On Friday afternoon, the city issued their Mea Culpa [Latin: "My Fault"] press release which said:
“The extent of our request for a candidate’s password, user name, or other internet information appears to have exceeded that which is acceptable to our community. We appreciate the concern many citizens have expressed regarding this practice and apologize for the negative impact this issue is having on the City of Bozeman.”
This is an excellent example of the power of the Internet, social networks, and the ire of citizens who take the time to participate in their local government’s decision making. Will it work this fast on a national or international issue? Probably not. But, few bureaucrats like getting questioned about why they decided on a particular policy. Many will turn tail and hide when forced to talk to the media when the public is backing up the questions.