Messer-Polis Data-Privacy Bill Endorsed by Educator Groups; Industry Wary

By Benjamin Herold — April 29, 2015 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print


In a surprising turnaround, new legislation that would significantly up the federal government’s involvement in protecting student-data privacy was introduced in the U.S. House today with support from educator groups.

But the “Student Digital Privacy and Parental Rights Act of 2015,” pulled just over a month ago following sharp criticism over vendor-friendly loopholes, has so far received a lukewarm reaction from the ed-tech industry.

The bill would prohibit ed-tech companies from selling student information and targeting students with advertisements. Vendors would be required to meet a host of new requirements on everything from data security to data retention to breach notification, as well as to be more transparent about their privacy policies, the nature of the information they collect from students, and with whom they share that information. The Federal Trade Commission would be given enforcement authority over the industry.

See Education Week’s comprehensive analysis of the proposed legislation.

During a call with reporters Wednesday, the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., and Jared Polis, D-Colo., said their aim was to address four broad goals: better protecting student privacy, empowering parents, encouraging innovative uses of technology in the classroom, and ensuring strong accountability in the ed-tech industry.

“Students and parents have the right to expect that the millions of data points collected on them every day remain private and aren’t sold to companies that monetize the information or to bad actors that [might] use the information in harmful ways,” Polis said.

The full text of the bill is embedded below.

A host of educator groups have already endorsed the bill. Among the signatories to a letter of support released by the congressmen’s offices:

  • AASA, the School Superintendents Association
  • International Society for Technology in Education
  • National Association of Elementary School Principals
  • National Association of Secondary School Principals
  • National Education Association
  • National PTA
  • State Educational Technology Directors Association

“We appreciate the opportunities that you have provided us for input on this legislation and believe that the final bill strikes a good balance between protecting student privacy and promoting personalized learning informed by data and powered by educational technology,” the letter reads.

Education groups and privacy advocates had expressed concern about an earlier draft of the bill that was set for introduction last month.

“I think this is really a good day,” said James Steyer, the CEO of Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that played an instrumental role in changing the bill to close perceived loopholes, expand the scope of student information that is covered, and add new security and transparency obligations for vendors.

“We look forward to helping them enact this meaningful legislation,” said Steyer, who took part in the conference call with Reps. Messer and Polis.

One potential hurdle could be the ed-tech industry; no broad industry-related groups were among the initial list of endorsers for the bill.

The Software and Information Industry Association, a Washington-based trade group, expressed concern that if enacted, the bill, which would not supersede state laws, would create significant burdens for educational technology companies.

“Congress must avoid unnecessarily adding to the patchwork of state laws and federal regulations that already govern schools and services providers,” the SIIA said in a statement. “Doing so could limit student access to advanced learning technologies that are essential to modern education.”

And the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington think tank that has, along with the SIIA, developed a voluntary industry pledge signed by more than 130 companies, also issued a tepid reaction.

“We hope the next steps in the legislative process will include options for parents to expressly approve educational uses of data they may want, such as for tutoring and enrichment programs, as well as other technical tweaks needed to match vendor obligations with school requirements,” wrote Jules Polonetsky, the group’s director, in an email.

Polonetsky described his group’s support for the bill as “mixed,” writing that “it meaningfully advances protections for student data.”

Computing giant Microsoft, meanwhile, applauded the bill, saying that it will help build public trust that vendors are adequately protecting and appropriately using student information.

Reps. Polis and Messer acknowledged “differences of opinion” in the sector, but told reporters they hoped to see more industry support soon.

“Responsible ed-tech providers realize that strong privacy protections are in the long-term interests of the industry,” Polis said.

This post has been updated with reaction from Microsoft and further reaction from the Future of Privacy Forum.

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.