As we enter into a brand new financial year, there appears to be little chance of stopping the unprecedented growth of social media. By the close of 2011, Facebook had amassed 845 million active users worldwide, which showed a significant increase of 45 million in just three months since the previous financial quarter. Twitter was another social media website that continued to break new ground during 2011, as it was reported in September that the site had reached 100 million active global users.
However, these figures do not tell the whole story when it comes to social media and the significant challenges that they are facing. To begin with, the market is beginning to reach the point of saturation, as Facebook prepares for a continued fall in its monthly user growth, while only 27% of global Twitter accounts were reported as being active between September 1st and November 30th last year. More significant than this, however, was the recent news that a New York job seeker was asked to provide his Facebook username and password for inspection during an interview. This raised further concerns over the misuse of social media, and the protection of each individual's privacy rights.

E-Recruitment and Social Media Screening: Taking a Step Too Far
While the use of social media to screen and hire applicants is nothing new, historically this has only been applied to public accounts that were without privacy restrictions. When e-recruitment rose in conjunction with increased social media usage in 2011, it became common practice for employers to review their applicants' public profiles as part of the hiring process, while the use of professional networking site LinkedIn allowed candidates to be recruited directly through social media interaction

With more than 60% of all U.S. and U.K. Internet users active on Facebook, social media screening emerged as an insightful and time-effective method of confirming a candidate's suitability for a role. With no way of accessing an applicant's private account, employers were forced to either befriend their potential employee or conduct a more traditional evaluation of their attributes. However, now that public and private employers are looking to take a more direct and invasive approach, worried job seekers are facing up to an impossible choice that compromises either their opportunity to work or their privacy.

The Reaction: The Stance of Facebook and Individual Users
Privacy issues are nothing new with Facebook, which was criticized as being little more than a global photo identification database by research carried out in 2011. Despite this, they have taken a firm stance on this latest issue, by threatening to take legal action against any employers who force users to compromise their own online privacy. The sharing of sensitive account information violates the core principles of the Facebook user agreement, and could potentially end in lawsuits and counter lawsuits between account holders, employers and even the social media giants themselves.

One of the main issues is the content that a Facebook password affords to employers. Not only would they be able to view an applicant's profile and timeline, but they would also be able to view private messages, conversations and deeply personal information about individual users and their family. If this information is accessed in the course of a failed application, the employer could be accused of discriminatory action. Aside from this, there is the wider issue that job seekers do not have the leverage that they need in a competitive employment market, with the result that many may agree to privacy violations under duress.

The Future for Facebook and Social Media as a Whole
U.S. lawmakers are also looking to take a stand on this issue, with the aim of protecting social media account holders from these invasive screenings. Senator Blumenthal has already began to develop legislation that opposes the practice of requesting job seekers' social media account details, which could well be introduced into the U.S. senate in the near future. A California state senator, LeLand Yee, is looking to create similar legislation for his own state, declaring the practice as unnecessary, unconstitutional and a gross invasion of privacy in the process.

Without swift action from lawmakers across the globe or Facebook themselves, the social media giant and its contemporaries could see their numbers of active users drop significantly over the next 12 months. After all, there have been reports of Facebook experiencing reduced growth in individual countries since 2010, and with more than 845 million active users, there is a danger that Facebook and similar social media outlets will soon reach their saturation points. Any significant threat to user and job seeker privacy could hinder growth further, and even encourage existing users to deactivate their accounts.

The Bottom Line
The reaction of U.S. lawmakers, Facebook users and the social media giant themselves suggest that there is growing concern for the freedom and privacy of job applicants with social media accounts. These personal rights are core to the fabric of any civilized nation, and no employer or organization should ever have the right to access the personal information of applicants and infringe on their privacy. Social media sites have a duty to protect users against the misuse of their personal information. Failure to uphold that duty may result in a significant reduction in the number of existing social media users, as well as diminished growth and a tarnished reputation for these websites.

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