Microsoft and other firms take pledge to protect student privacy

Fourteen companies have promised not to sell student data or use it for advertising

Microsoft and other companies that provide education technologies and services to U.S. schools aim to assuage parents' concerns about the collection and handling of student data with a pledge to protect that data.

The companies signing the pledge are, however, only a small section of providers to the kindergarten to 12th grade education sector. The pledge may also be an attempt to propose self-regulation as an alternative to tighter federal laws.

The Future of Privacy Forum (FPF), a think tank in Washington, D.C., and the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), who announced the pledge late Monday, described the 14 companies who have signed the pledge as an "initial leadership group."

Microsoft and the 13 other companies have promised not to sell student information or behaviorally target advertising. They pledge, among other things, to be transparent about the collection and use of data, to adopt comprehensive security standards to protect student data and use the data only for authorized education purposes.

The push by the educational technology sector to develop new products and services for the education market has already come under scrutiny. The Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, for example, wrote in July to the U.S. Congress to urge review of emerging threats to student privacy rights and to ask for legislative action to address shortcomings in the existing law.

California Governor Jerry Brown last week signed a bill that would prohibit targeting of students for online marketing and advertising purposes, selling of student information, profiling students based on data collected, and requires operators to have security measures to protect student data.

A bill has also been introduced in the U.S. Senate to amend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. The amendment, titled Protecting Student Privacy Act, aims to protect student data handled by private companies.

The FPF and SIIA said the new pledge was developed by the two organizations with guidance from school service providers, educator organizations, and other stakeholders following a convening by U.S. Representatives Jared Polis of Colorado and Luke Messer of Indiana.

Messer said in a statement that the principles would better inform the debate about what, if any legislation, is required to protect child privacy and to ensure information is used only for academic purposes.

The other companies signing the pledge include digital curriculum provider Amplify and textbook and educational software publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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