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House advances bill to protect students' online privacy

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SPRINGFIELD-Colleges, universities and public schools would not be able to access students' social networking accounts under a bill passed by the Illinois House Friday in an effort to protect student privacy.

Following a flurry of last-second vote changes, the measure, sponsored by Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago), eked out of the House by a bare-minimum 60-54 vote and now moves to the Senate.

"I was surprised that we got just what we needed," Ford said. "It was a close vote."

The bill bans all colleges and universities from requiring students or their parents to provide access to student's social networking profiles.

However, a school would be able to make the request if it has "reasonable cause" to believe the student's profile contains evidence showing the student has violated school policy. But even then, the student could deny the school access, Ford said.

"It would be sort of like a [police] officer saying, 'open your door' or 'open your trunk,' and if you open it you subject yourself to whatever's in the trunk," Ford said.

In the same way, public elementary schools and high schools could also request access to students social networks if they have reason to believe a student's profile shows the student has violated school policy. The school would have to communicate this authority in its handbook or set of rules.

Last year, Ford was the driving force behind banning employers from demanding access to employees' or job candidates' social network accounts.

"This [bill] came as an addition to the employers [bill passed last year], and I have university students asking for me to add them as well," Ford said. "Last year this bill became an issue because they were not added."

Not quite persuaded by Ford's argument, Rep. Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) brought up last year's vote during Friday's debate and called the legislation a "solution in search of a problem."

"How would we regulate cyberspace?" Durkin asked. "I believe there is a way to solve these problems...but I don't believe this gets the job done."

But Ford is convinced the measure provides a vital protection for students engaging in online social activity.

"When you give your password, you give your email account information, you give credit card information, you give all sorts of information," he said. "And so this will not only protect the password for social media, but it protects your personal email accounts and credit card information."

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