Since the Federal Trade Commission updated a law prohibiting the collection of children’s personal information at the end of 2012, legislatures in nearly every state have released a wave of new legislation meant to ease anxieties over the unwanted release of student data, especially for marketing purposes.
For now, an edtech company that tracks student data for any reason has to stay nimble while complying with varying state laws, and tread carefully with their client’s information.
Even without a lawyer, developers are trying to stay current. “The main overhead we see from all of the various laws is that someone has to pay attention to them,” said Brent Milne, vice president of research and co-founder of Woot Math, makers of personalized algebra games.
“Having to engage, individually, with dozens, hundreds, or thousands of districts on data handling and many other topics can be extremely challenging for smaller teams,” Milne said, “but that is really one of the fundamental challenges of the education market: the fragmentation of the market and the heterogeneous requirements, all with federal, state, and district level concerns.”
This fragmented challenge applies across the board, according to Milne, not just to privacy requirements. It’s one reason why the market is “favorable to a few large publishers and very challenging to smaller developers.”
What’s still unclear is the role marketing has to play within educational apps. Most edtech companies steer clear of any association between student data and marketing. However, at least one commercial group, the Software and Information Industry Association, is trying to create a law that would allow some use of data — the Safe Kids Act authored by U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Steve Daines (R-MT).
The bill was met by mixed reaction from those who want to ensure there is no data generated by apps in school that can be used for commercial purposes.
“The bill does not go far enough in protecting children from potentially harmful commercial influences. Websites, apps, and software assigned to students by their schools should be free of all advertising, regardless of whether the ads are contextual or based on data-mining students during each one of their internet sessions,” said Josh Golin, Executive Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “Schools should not be allowed to sell or offer up their students’ data, time and attention to marketers for any reason.”
Despite the debate over the federal initiative, app industry supporters caution that the lack of a single national privacy standard is becoming a major impediment to building news educational tools.
“Companies and developers need clear definitions about what type of marketing is OK and what isn’t OK.” said Sara Kloek, director of policy initiatives for ACT | The App Association, who helped found ACT’s privacy site, Know What’s Inside, which has more than 400 participating companies.
“With dozens of student privacy bills introduced across the country," she said "app developers should continue to be transparent about their data and marketing practices so teachers, parents, and students are not surprised by what’s inside the apps.
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