Privacy & Security

President Obama’s Student-Data-Privacy Proposal Gets Wary Industry Reaction

By Michele Molnar — January 14, 2015 4 min read
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Cross-posted from the Marketplace K-12 blog.

Companies that provide educational technology will carefully watch the unfolding of President Obama’s proposal for a new Student Digital Privacy Act, and closely scrutinize the release of recommended “terms of service” guidance from the U.S. Department of Education that could set new expectations for digital companies.

They might also find themselves in the spotlight if they fail to sign a voluntary pledge to safeguard student data.

President Obama Monday called for legislation to protect students’ online data in a speech at the Federal Trade Commission. Referring to a student data-protection law passed last year in California, Obama advocated for the passage of a similar federal law to prevent companies from selling sensitive student information collected in schools and to prohibit them from using that kind of data to engage in targeted advertising to children. (See Digital Education’s coverage of the White House’s announcement.)

Privacy Pledge by Companies

The president also lauded a voluntary Student Privacy Pledge to safeguard student data that has been signed by 75 companies. The pledge, which was developed by the Software & Information Industry Association, or the SIIA, and the Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank in Washington, details what companies promise to do, and not to do, with student information.

“We want to encourage every company that provides technology to our schools to join this effort,” the president said, “and if you don’t join this effort, then we intend to make sure that those parents and those schools know that you haven’t joined” it.

Obama did not provide details about how companies could be called out for failing to sign the pledge.

The SIIA maintains that the pledge to protect student enforcement is enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission because companies that sign it publicly state their commitment to follow its tenets. However, the pledge is not meant to be mandatory.

“There are many ways for companies to make sure they’re addressing student privacy,” said Mark Schneiderman, the SIIA’s senior director of education policy, in an interview. He called the pledge a voluntary code of conduct and a means of self-regulation. “It shouldn’t be assumed that everyone necessarily has to sign on, or that you’re a bad actor if you don’t.”

Among companies that have not signed the pledge are technology giant Google, the global education company Pearson, and publisher and digital learning company McGraw-Hill Education.

Google declined to comment on the proposed legislation or the pledge. Pearson didn’t refer to it in a statement the company released.

A spokesman for McGraw-Hill Education indicated that the company supports the pledge and expects to sign it with the launch of the company’s new privacy center in the first half of 2015.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a global learning company, touted its early signing of the pledge in a statement, and said it “welcomes” the steps taken by the president.

The Prospect of Federal Legislation

The SIIA expressed concern that, unless a new federal law pre-empts all state laws, “it risks adding another layer to the confusing patchwork of regulations now facing local schools and service providers,” according to a statement it released.

An issue ed-tech providers raise is the possibility that too many regulations could prevent digital education from delivering on its potential to help students learn, and to individualize instruction.

“We must ensure that public policies at all levels carefully balance consumer protections with the unintended consequences that may choke off the development of innovative tools that support teachers and school leaders at the very time that our nation’s schools hunger for effective learning technologies,” said Steve Pines, the executive director of the Education Industry Association.

Pearson echoed that concern: “Our hope is that all public policies strike the right balance between protecting student data and ensuring that the promise of technology can continue to improve student learning,” said Stacy Skelly, Pearson’s vice president of corporate affairs for schools, in the company statement.

Model Terms of Service

A White House fact sheet indicated that forthcoming new tools from the U.S. Department of Education and its privacy technical assistance center will include new “model terms of service” and new advice for training teachers on data-privacy issues.

Schneiderman said he’s not sure what form this guidance will take. “The tricky part of this work is the variance in product services, types of data, and uses of the data [among different ed-tech companies.] So it’s difficult to put in standard clauses that will work in all cases.”

A “checkbox” approach could create unintended consequences in the implementation, he said.

See also:

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