Technology

Student Privacy Bill Puts Ed-Tech Groups in Hot Seat

By / May 4, 2015 (iStock/Thinkstock)

A new bill aimed at limiting how education companies use data is picking up steam in Congress, but it comes at a time when a major trade group has been proactive on the issue.

Just about a year ago, a student data nonprofit with the backing of none other than Bill Gates found itself in the crosshairs of angry parents who bristled at its big data ambitions.

The death of inBloom has cast a shadow on the debate over student privacy ever since. It’s a debate that’s starting to bleed into Congress, as members of the House are introducing a bill that would limit the ways in which technology companies use data from students who use their devices and programs.

The legislation, introduced by Reps. Luke Messer (R-IN) and Jared Polis (D-CO), is certain to drive big debate in the education-technology industry, particularly because it would ban many of the practices that inBloom drew scrutiny for, such as creating student profiles for noneducational purposes.

“The status quo surrounding the protection of our students’ data is entirely unacceptable,” Polis said in explaining the need for the Student Digital Privacy and Parental Rights Act of 2015. “It’s like the Wild Wild West—there are few regulations protecting students’ privacy and parental rights, and the ones that do exist were written in an age before smartphones and tablets.”

An Existing Pledge

Despite this, trade groups focused on ed-tech efforts are taking a wait-and-see approach on the bill—in part because the industry has been working on its own student-privacy-protection solution.

Last fall the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) and the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) joined forces in launching the Student Privacy Pledge, an agreement by ed-tech groups to safeguard student data and limit the ways they collect data to purposes authorized by parents and students.

“School service providers support schools—including their teachers, students, and parents—to manage student data, carry out school operations, support instruction and learning opportunities, and develop and improve products/services intended for educational/school use,” the groups say in their pledge. “In so doing, it is critical that schools and school service providers build trust by effectively protecting the privacy of student information and communicating with parents about how student information is used and safeguarded.”

The agreement has been signed by 137 organizations, including Google, Apple, Khan Academy, and Code.org. The pledge also has the backing of President Barack Obama, who discussed the effort during his privacy summit in January.

In comments on the new House bill, Mark MacCarthy, SIIA vice president of public policy, emphasized that the group appreciates the efforts of Polis and Messer, but he encouraged caution in the regulatory approach.

“As it considers privacy legislation, Congress must avoid unnecessarily adding to the patchwork of state laws and federal regulations that already govern schools and service providers,” MacCarthy said. “Doing so could limit student access to advanced learning technologies that are essential to modern education. For this reason, our highest priority is ensuring a student-data regulatory framework that is harmonious and clear for everyone, including families, educators, and the school-technology sector.”

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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