Congressmen urge support for student data privacy bill

Reps. Luke Messer, R-Ind., and Jared Polis, D-Colo., are trying to gain more sponsors for their Student Digital Privacy Act, which was introduced in the House in April.

The congressmen behind a student data privacy bill aimed at cracking down on educational technology vendors said the status quo is “unacceptable,” reinforcing persisting concerns from advocates that a variety of players still need to understand how to protect kids’ data.

Reps. Luke Messer, R-Ind., and Jared Polis, D-Colo., spoke to a receptive audience of privacy advocates at a House briefing Tuesday to discuss the hot-button topic. Messer invoked his own children’s experiences at school, saying he didn’t want his 8-year-old son to get “hit with ads for the NBA 2K15 video game because he has an affinity for answering questions about sports.”

The bill introduced in the House in April, dubbed the Student Digital Privacy Act, would regulate software companies’ use and collection of student data – and give significant oversight powers to the Federal Trade Commission to penalize bad actors. The congressmen are ramping up efforts to get more supporters from both sides of the aisle.

“I understand some within the industry would like to see the status quo continue when it comes to student data collection,” Messer said during the event hosted by the Center for Democracy & Technology. “If there’s one message I can leave for this room today, it’s that the status quo is not acceptable for parents or the industry.”


Advocates say a strong measure protecting students from becoming targets of unwanted advertising while ensuring they can use different software to personalize learning will lay the blueprint for how kids learn for years to come.

“If we do this right, we now have the possibility of ensuring that every single child in this country not only graduates from high school but graduates prepared for the increasingly challenging and economically diverse and competitive environment,” said Aimee Guidera, president of the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group.

But questions still persist about how to effectively train teachers and how parents consent to their children’s data being used.

“When it comes to technology used by schools, it’s schools making the decisions, and for parents it’s either, ‘take it or leave it,'” said Joni Lupovitz, vice president of policy for Common Sense Media. “It’s not a choice; it’s sort of a forced consent for technology recommended by schools.”

There is also the fact that dozens of states have introduced their own versions of the Student Digital Privacy Act, with different definitions and degrees of protection, which would pre-empt a federal law.


“We’re watching around the country how hard this is,” Guidera said, adding that Louisiana became a laughingstock when administrators questioned whether students could get school photos taken after the Legislature passed a highly restrictive bill safeguarding personally identifiable information. There are also concerns that states like New Hampshire, which recently passed its own privacy law, will end up hindering innovation.

“Data should be used to open doors for kids, never close them,” Guidera said.

Vendors represented at the briefing included Microsoft and Google — though Allyson Knox, director of education policy and programs at Microsoft, was quick to point out that the company was a leader in the privacy debate before other tech companies.

“We were the first of 14 companies to sign the Student Privacy Pledge,” Knox said, referring to a voluntary pledge now signed by 150 edtech companies. Google was criticized for flip-flopping on the issue, eventually signing it earlier this year.

Now the tech giant, part of a growing chorus of vendors, wants a seat at the table. Sarah Holland, senior analyst of public policy and government relations, said during the briefing that the company is committed to protecting student data.


She said students can become active creators of their own content, not just consumers, with more technology at their fingertips.

“They should have agency over their own data,” Holland said.

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