Obama Proposes Student Digital Privacy Act

President Obama today released a new legislative proposal designed to ensure that data collected in the educational context is used only for educational purposes. According to a release from the White House, the federal Student Digital Privacy Act, modeled on California’s Student Online Personal Information Protection Act, would prevent companies from selling student data to third parties for purposes unrelated to education and from engaging in targeted advertising to students based on data collected in school.

Obama commented, “If we’re going to be connected, then we need to be protected…. Each of us as individuals have a sphere of privacy around us that should not be breached,” by either the government or vendors.

The new legislation would still encourage research initiatives to improve student learning outcomes, as well as efforts by companies to improve the effectiveness of their learning technology products.

Many ed tech companies have already shown their support for protecting students’ data by signing the Student Data Privacy Pledge, which was led by the Future of Privacy Forum and the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA). Obama today acknowledged the 75 companies that have signed the pledge and challenged others to follow their lead.

Mark MacCarthy, SIIA’s vice president of public policy, called the pledge “one enforceable means by which the industry is demonstrating its commitment to protect student information and make certain it is used only for educational purposes.”

Among the first signatories of the pledge was Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH). Bill Bowman, vice president for information security at HMH, welcomed Obama’s announcement, saying, “Data and technology offer unprecedented potential to enrich the learning experience, but this potential can only be realized through strong data usage practices that protect the safety and privacy of learners, regardless of age. It is our job to be a responsible steward of student information.” 

James P. Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, agreed that Obama “is absolutely right to take this step forward in creating a trusted online learning environment for all American students — and do it in a reasonable way where industry can innovate, schools can provide state-of-the-art digital learning tools, and students can thrive.”

Consortium for School Networking CEO Keith Krueger, meanwhile, encouraged “a measured, thoughtful process. Most importantly, new federal privacy policies should not overreach and limit the ability of educators to use data to improve student outcomes.” Krueger added, “We urge the Administration to look beyond simple prohibitions and embrace policies that will build the capacity of schools, school leaders and teachers to effectively use and protect data.”

SIIA’s MacCarthy also expressed some reservations. “We are concerned 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,” he said. “At a time when our nation has increasingly stiff global competition, we must balance privacy protection with the critical need for local schools and teachers to have access to advanced learning technologies.”

Along with the Student Digital Privacy Act, the White House announced that the Privacy Technical Assistance Center will offer new teacher training assistance designed to help ensure that educational data is used appropriately. Aimee Rogstad Guidera, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Data Quality Campaign, said “With state, federal and industry action, it is more essential than ever that we align all of these cross-sector efforts and provide clear, consistent guidance to educators and school leaders as they use data to improve student outcomes.”

About the Author

Christopher Piehler is the former editor-in-chief of THE Journal.

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