Governor should veto flawed student privacy bill

Hogan should veto watered-down bill that doesn't advance student privacy protections in Maryland.

Among the bills awaiting action from Gov. Larry Hogan's desk is House Bill 298, a proposal that does more harm than good when it comes to keeping kids' private and personal information out of the hands of technology companies. Governor Hogan should veto the bill.

We applauded Del. Anne Kaiser's efforts to introduce and pass meaningful student privacy legislation that would protect Maryland students. In fact, the original version of the bill that was introduced by Del. Kaiser in February would have established a number of these protections. Sadly, the measure was hijacked in the state Senate by industry lobbyists, who managed to completely undermine the bill through a series of last-minute amendments, leaving a measure riddled with loopholes that puts the interests of tech vendors above those of Maryland's schoolchildren.

As Maryland schools integrate laptops and tablets in the classroom and use cloud computing services to facilitate operations and communication, a myriad of websites, online services and apps are collecting massive amounts of sensitive personal information about students and their families — contact information, online searches and activity, health information, behavioral information and student performance.

We need a trusted online environment, so our students can benefit from innovative educational technology without fear that their personal information will be exploited for commercial purposes or fall into the wrong hands.

Sadly, HB 298 fails to provide the necessary privacy and data security protections for our kids.

As amended, the bill would allow companies to use information collected in our schools to market their products to our children and their parents, and to disclose students' personal information to third parties. We believe that children have the right to attend school without being forced to turn over private information to tech profiteers looking for new ways to make a buck. HB 298 does little to protect against this predatory behavior.

The watered-down bill simply does not advance privacy protections for Maryland students. Through a bunch of ill-considered, last-minute, industry-driven amendments, the bill now applies only to a very limited set of education technology providers that are under contract with a public school or school system — leaving many of the sites, services and apps used in schools free to collect whatever data they want and do with it whatever they see fit.

The bill also fails to cover a huge number of ed-tech companies operating in Maryland schools without contracts, affording absolutely no protection to tons of sensitive student information.

As currently written, HB 298 gives companies license and legal cover to target ads to children and their families based on the sensitive information they collect in the classroom. The bill would permit these companies to provide a notice to parents about their intended use or disclosure of students' personal information and give the parents a "Hobson's choice" — either they "consent" or else their children won't be able to use the school-sanctioned site or service.

HB 298 does little to offer real safeguards for our kids. In fact, by posing these amendments as genuine privacy protections, it would make it more difficult to pass meaningful, common sense protections of students' sensitive information. The amended proposal sets a dangerous precedent, creating the false illusion of maintaining student privacy while actually doing far more to protect the interests of industry marketers.

Make no mistake: HB 298 falls woefully short of the common sense protections students and their families deserve. Parents should be able to send their kids to school feeling comfortable that their privacy will not be exploited for marketing purposes by companies eager to turn a profit and build customer profiles using our kids' personal information. While other states across the country are enacting meaningful measures that protect student privacy and data security while permitting industry innovation and research, the politicians of Maryland have fallen woefully flat.

Maryland deserves far better. Governor Hogan should veto HB 298 and encourage the legislature to go back to the drawing board next session and come up with a better bill, so that our schools can provide state-of-the-art digital learning tools and Maryland students can thrive in a proper and protected learning environment.

James P. Steyer is founder and CEO of Common Sense Media. His email is jim@commonsense.org; Twitter: twitter.com/jimsteyer.

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