We need vigilance on student online privacy

President Barack Obama speaks at the Federal Trade Commission in January about his proposals to improve consumer and student online data privacy.
President Barack Obama speaks at the Federal Trade Commission in January about his proposals to improve consumer and student online data privacy. The Associated Press

California has led the way on safeguarding student privacy. Last year, state lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown enacted the Student Online Personal Information Protection Act, a bill strongly supported by Common Sense Media that puts standards in place for new education technology tools.

The measure passed with unanimous, bipartisan support and stands as a model for other states to follow when it comes to protecting our kids’ personal information, such as Social Security numbers, health records, disciplinary information, family financial details and other sensitive data. It puts important standards in place to protect the privacy rights of students and their families.

But no sooner was the ink dry on this milestone measure than the technology companies ramped up their lobbying and campaign spending and went to work trying to weaken it.

The latest sneak attack comes from Assemblyman Ian Calderon, who has proposed a new bill that would gut protections for California students. Assembly Bill 817 would open the door to all manner of sharing and selling of students’ educational data, making sensitive information vulnerable to advertisers, marketers and data brokers, not to mention hackers.

Through Calderon’s measure, tech companies are essentially seeking a license to sell students’ personal information obtained through their K-12 online services, websites and apps to market all kinds of products and services.

This is what the law enacted last year was specifically designed to prohibit. It already permits K-12 online companies to market to parents so long as the marketing did not result from the use of a student’s personal information. That, apparently, is not enough for some companies, who want to be able to exploit students’ personal information without any restrictions or limitations.

Polls and recent press reports demonstrate that the potential for the misuse of student data is of deep concern to parents and the general public. This is not the time for California to weaken the protections our students receive.

Calderon’s measure is a reminder of the increased vigilance required to maintain our fundamental right to privacy. It’s a shame that Calderon, who has received thousands of dollars in contributions from the tech industry, is now doing their bidding instead of protecting the rights of our students and their families.

We must continue the fight against powerful interests working to create and exploit loopholes in the law that will allow them to market to our children. We strongly urge the Legislature to stop this bill in its tracks.

James P. Steyer is CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, an advocacy group based in San Francisco.