Kate bluebonnets

It’s Spring in Texas which means one of two things – the bluebonnets are out and in odd years, our legislature is back at work.  One makes me grateful to be in Texas and the other only meets every other year.  Here are a few bills we are watching this session:

Service of Process Via Social Media- HB 241

The Legislature is making another effort on this.

The bill provides:

Sec. 17.032.  SUBSTITUTED SERVICE THROUGH SOCIAL MEDIA PRESENCE.
(a)  If substituted service of citation is authorized under the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, the court, in accordance with the rules adopted by the supreme court under Subsection (b), may prescribe as a method of service an electronic communication sent to the defendant through a social media presence.

(b)  The supreme court shall adopt rules to provide for the substituted service of citation by an electronic communication sent to a defendant through a social media presence.

It looks like the bill stalled in committee.

Codifying a fair reporting privilege – SB 627

The Legislature continues to show its disdain for defamation suits.  This time, they are considering a bill that would codify a sometimes-recognized common law fair reporting privilege.  The privilege allows for a fair reporting of public records and allegations as long as done in good faith.  It looks like this one may become law.

The bill provides:

(b)  This section applies to:

(1)  a fair, true, and impartial account of:

(A)  a judicial proceeding, unless the court has prohibited publication of a matter because in its judgment the interests of justice demand that the matter not be published; (B)  an official proceeding, other than a judicial  proceeding, to administer the law; (C)  an executive or legislative proceeding (including a proceeding of a legislative committee), a proceeding in or before a managing board of an educational or eleemosynary institution supported from the public revenue, of the governing body of a city or town, of a county commissioners court, and of a public school board or a report of or debate and statements made in any of those proceedings; or (D)  the proceedings of a public meeting dealing with a public purpose, including statements and discussion at the meeting or other matters of public concern occurring at the meeting; [and]

(2)  publication of allegations made by a third party regarding matters of public concern, regardless of the truth or falsity of the allegations; and

(3)  reasonable and fair comment on or criticism of an official act of a public official or other matter of public concern published for general information.

(c)  This section does not abrogate or lessen any other defense, remedy, immunity, or privilege available under other constitutional, statutory, case, or common law or rule provisions.

(d)  This section shall be construed liberally to effectuate its purpose and intent fully.

Civil Penalties for Frivolous Patent Claims – SB 1457

This bill also looks like it might be headed for passage.  The pertinent part of the bill states:

       Sec. 17.952.  BAD FAITH CLAIM OF PATENT INFRINGEMENT PROHIBITED.

(a)  A person may not send to an end user located or doing business in this state a written or electronic communication that is a bad faith claim of patent infringement.

(b)  A communication is a bad faith claim of patent infringement if the communication includes a claim that the end user or a person affiliated with the end user has infringed a patent and is liable for that infringement and:

(1)  the communication falsely states that the sender has filed a lawsuit in connection with the claim;

(2)  the claim is objectively baseless because:

(A)  the sender or a person the sender represents does not have a current right to license the patent to or enforce the patent against the end user; (B)  the patent has been held invalid or unenforceable in a final judgment or administrative decision; or (C)  the infringing activity alleged in the communication occurred after the patent expired; or

(3)  the communication is likely to materially mislead a reasonable end user because the communication does not contain information sufficient to inform the end user of:

(A)  the identity of the person asserting the claim; (B)  the patent that is alleged to have been infringed; and (C)  at least one product, service, or technology obtained by the end user that is alleged to infringe the patent or the activity of the end user that is alleged to infringe the patent.

The bill only allows for enforcement by the Attorney General and not private litigants.

We will keep on eye on these any other bills of note.

Although the Governor called a special session extending the Texas Legislative session, the topics to be addressed are political ones and not the ones we have been tracking.  We can therefore wrap-up our watch of the three bills we were monitoring.

First, bring out your dead!

HB 318/SB 118 social media passwords

A bill that would have prohibited employers from demanding social media passwords from its employees and applicants garnered much attention, was passed by the house, but then died.  Texas will not join about a dozen other states who have passed similar laws to provide what I think is a solution to a non-existent problem.  I seriously doubt that between now and 2015, employers will run amok demanding social media passwords — especially with the pro-employment attention Texas has been getting (shameless plug for my hometown).  The National Conference of State Legislatures has a good page on the efforts by various states.

HB 1989 service by social media

This bill also generated attention, but did not get very far.  It would have allowed judges to authorize service of a lawsuit via social media.   The existing rules allow judges to authorize substituted service when necessary which could include social media assuming certain due process protections are in place.  This bill would have given judges more comfort with the idea, but its death does not mean it can’t still be done.   This Outside Counsel article by Michael Lynch suggests service of process via social media may become more common without extra rules or laws.

The lone survivor

Only SB 94 was passed and will become law on September 1, 2013.  It allows for private civil lawsuits against websites that allow advertisements for what the law calls “compelled prostitution,” better known as sex trafficking.  As explained in my initial post, there is a serious legal question of whether the Texas law would run afoul of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which generally shields website operators from liability for user generated content.  Hopefully, it is a purely academic discussion and this law is little used because of the lack of necessity.  If a website is sued, it will make for an interesting defense.

The Legislature now focuses on redistricting – expect some fireworks and perhaps another escape.

As part of our continuing coverage of the Texas Legislature Watch (they only meet every other year in Texas), we look at the bill that would prohibit employers from demanding passwords or other access to the social media accounts of employees and prospective employees.  It goes to the House floor tomorrow.

As we originally reported, on December 21, 2012, HB 318 was prefiled and the senate considered the similar SB 118.  You can read my original post for the original version of the bill and my original comments. 

Now that it is through committee, the bill specifically excludes those in the “financial industry.”  It also includes an exception for employers to investigate wrongdoing.  Specifically, it now states:

(c) An employer may access a personal account of an employee if the employer holds a reasonable belief that the employee has violated:

(1) state or federal law, including a federal regulation or any regulatory policy or guidance issued by a federal agency; or

(2) an employment policy of the employer, including a policy governing:

(A) employee usage of an electronic communication device for work-related communications;

(B) the storage of potentially sensitive, nonpublic consumer information or of employer proprietary information;

(C) employee cooperation in a workplace investigation; or

(D) the safety and security of employees and customers of the employer.

While addressing two of the issues we spotted with the original bill, it still does not apply to college or other students.  It also does not provide any immunity for employers for failing to investigate social media profiles.

As explained in this article by Jessica Mendelson of Seyfarth Shaw, Texas looks to join the states of Utah, New Mexico and Arkansas that recently passed similar laws.

Democratic Texas State Representative Helen Giddings filed a bill prohibiting employers in Texas from asking for social media passwords from applicants and current employees.  Texas joins a long list of states that have either passed or proposed similar legislation. 

On December 21, 2012, HB 318 was pre-filed.  Democratic State Senator Chuy Hinojosa filed the exact bill with the Senate as SB 118.  The bills read: 

(b) An employer commits an unlawful employment practice if the employer requires or requests that an employee or applicant for employment disclose a user name, password, or other means for accessing a personal account of the employee or applicant, including a personal e-mail account or a social networking website account or profile, through an electronic communication device.

(c) This section does not prohibit an employer from:

(1) maintaining lawful workplace policies governing:

(A) employee usage of employer-provided electronic communication devices, including employee access to personal accounts on those devices; or

(B) employee usage of personal electronic communication devices during working hours;

(2) monitoring employee usage of employer-provided electronic communication devices or employer-provided e-mail accounts; or

(3) obtaining information about an employee or applicant for employment that is in the public domain or that is otherwise lawfully obtained.

Six states already have similar laws and many others are considering similar legislation.  The National Conference of State Legislatures has a good resource that tracks what all of the states are doing in this area. 

Here are a couple of issues I see with the Texas version.

1.  There is no exemption for employers to investigate wrongdoing.

For example, Michigan lays out some exceptions that exclude “Disciplining or discharging an employee for transferring the employer’s proprietary or confidential information or financial data to an employee’s personal internet account without the employer’s authorization”; and “conducting an investigation or requiring an employee to cooperate in an investigation . . .”   

2.  There is no exemption for highly-regulated industries like securities.

The Michigan law exempts employers “if there is specific information about activity on the employee’s personal internet account, for the purpose of ensuring compliance with applicable laws, regulatory requirements, or prohibitions against work-related employee misconduct.”

3.   What about shoulder-surfing?

The statute forbids employers from using “other means for accessing a personal account” but there is a qualifier at the end that seems to limit the employer’s access to the account “through an electronic communication device.”  So, can an employer tell an applicant or employee to log-in to Facebook while I look over your shoulder?  It is certainly not clear.  Other states take a more direct approach.    The California law expressly forbids requiring an employee to “access personal social media in the presence of the employer” which would prevent shoulder surfing.

4.  Immunity for employers who can no longer access social media accounts.

 I normally advise companies not to use social media to screen applicants unless you have and follow a specific plan.  I could foresee, however, that a mishap could happen at work and a creative plaintiff’s lawyer could argue negligent hiring because a social media search would have revealed the employee was racist, sexist, violent, etc.  It would make sense then that if employers are prohibited from doing thorough social media research, they should not be held liable for failing to do so if something went wrong.  Michigan has addressed this in its version by stating:

Sec. 7. (1) This act does not create a duty for an employer or educational institution to search or monitor the activity of a personal internet account.

(2) An employer or educational institution is not liable under this act for failure to request or require that an employee, a student, an applicant for employment, or a prospective student grant access to, allow observation of, or disclose information that allows access to or observation of the employee’s, student’s, applicant for employment’s, or prospective student’s personal internet account.

5.  What about students?

Many of the bills apply the same rules to secondary school, colleges and universities.  If we care about privacy, shouldn’t we apply it to them as well.

These are just a few issues and I still question whether this a fix in search of a problem.  Yes, there have been one or two publicized incidents of employers demanding access to social media accounts.  But, I’m not the only one that questions whether laws forbidding requests for social media accounts are necessary.  As the economy recovers, I would think this is something the market will handle.  Besides, I see certain positions where such requests would be encouraged such as youth camp counselors or mental health providers, security personnel and employees for religious institutions. 

This is the second part of our Texas Leg Watch 2013.  The Texas Legislature meets every odd year, so we will monitor any bills of interest to the online media, marketing and start-up community.  Our first post looked at a proposal that would allow civil lawsuits to be brought against internet online advertisements that resulted in human trafficking perhaps usurping the federal Communications Decency Act protections.

The State of Texas may find out and it may be more applicable to your site than you think.  In early filing for the 2013 legislative session, Democratic state Senator Leticia Van de Putte proposed a bill aimed at stopping at stopping human trafficking.  The entire text is here.

It allows for human trafficking victims to bring civil suits against the wrongdoers including websites, that allow advertisements promoting the compelled sex trade.  Specifically, it states a website can be liable if it:

publishes an advertisement that the [website] knows or reasonably should know constitutes promotion of  prostitution or aggravated prostitution and the publication of the advertisement results in compelling prostitution with respect to the victim. 

The Bill and Section 230

I’ll parse through the language below, but first I want to discuss how this law may interact with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.  Section 230 provides the operators of websites with immunity from any suits caused by the content created by others.  It states:

no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

It usually shields sites from defamation claims, but it has been applied to almost all claims that stem from the content  created by others.

So what happens if a website simply allows anyone to create ads, specifically adult services ads without having any say as to the content?  Would the CDA trump this Texas proposal?  Online adult listing companies have already prevailed on several related suits in MissouriWashington and Illinois.  If Texas passes the law, it is likely to legislate its way into a lawsuit. 

Numerous local and state officials have attempted to crack down on at least one known adult-listing service without much success.  The passage of the law in Texas could be a symbolic statement increasing the fervor for Congress to make changes to the CDA.  The CDA already expressly excludes liability for federal criminal laws including child pornography.  Thus, Congress could carve out a similar exemption as it relates to human trafficking.

The Language of the Texas Bill 

If the proposed law were to survive CDA and other challenges, it could present some interesting trial issues.  First, you have to parse through the definitions.  “Promotion of prostitution” is essentially pimping for one person.  “Aggravated promotion of prostitution” is running a pimping enterprise of more than one prostitute.  So, to be liable, the media company would have to know, or reasonably show know, that the advertisement is for promotion of prostitution (i.e., pimping). 

A successful plaintiff would not have to show, however, that the website operator knew the pimp was engaging in “compelling prostitution.”  Compelled prostitution means that through force or threat of force, you force someone to commit prostitution or cause a minor to commit prostitution–the human trafficking aspect.

While crass, the law essentially means that an advertisement for a “reputable pimp” who does not engage in “compelling prostitution” would be OK.  But, if you think that the advertising pimp is “reputable” and they turn out not to be because they force people or use minors, the website would be in trouble. 

Also interesting is that if you are the actual prostitute and you advertise, then the media company cannot be held liable because you are not engaging in “promotion of prostitution.”   

How would this apply to my site?

You may be thinking that I don’t run an adult classified listing site, so while interesting, I don’t care.  If you run any interactive site that allows for user generated content or messages, you may want to think again.  Under this provision, “advertisement” is defined to include communications that promote a commercial service on websites “operated for a commercial purpose.”  Read broadly, that could apply to every website that makes any money regardless of whether you accept classified listings or allow users to advertise, as we normally think of the term, on your site.  In other words, the “advertisement” that creates liability, could be a comment a user posted on your blog that makes some money.

So, if a pimp takes to Facebook and posts a free message promoting human trafficking, could Facebook be held liable?  Their liability would all come down to what did Facebook know or should it have known?

Human trafficking is a serious issue.  According to reports, adult classified that may involve adult trafficking is also serious business.  Without action from Congress, any efforts by Texas or other states to crack down on online advertising is likely to lead straight to the courthouse.