There was a rare bit of good news Wednesday for those concerned with the privacy of our children. Under increasing pressure, Google announced that it will no longer scan student Gmail accounts for advertising purposes. The company also agreed to stop serving ads on the Google Apps for Education platform - a set of email, calendar and document-creation services geared specifically toward students and teachers.
It's encouraging to see that Google has acknowledged that students' personal information and online activity should not be used to target advertising to students. Students who use apps and online services for education should be able to focus on learning, without their activity being mined for advertising purposes. Students' computer screens are not billboards.
"Earning and keeping [customer] trust drives our business forward," Bram Bout, director of Google for Education, wrote in a blog post announcing the new policy. "We know that trust is earned through protecting their privacy and providing the best security measures."
The announcement was a hard-fought victory for those of us who have been strong advocates for protecting children's privacy. These victories do not come easily. Those of us who are concerned about children's privacy cannot assume that companies like Google will do the right thing on their own. It takes the continued vigilance and action from watchdogs, community leaders and our elected officials to hold these data-gathering companies accountable and to ensure that companies are doing the right thing.
While the recent announcement is welcome news, there is more to be done. Google should be completely transparent about how it uses student information. Although the company has promised that it won't use student information for advertising purposes, it would be helpful for Google to clarify that it uses students' personal information and online activity solely for educational purposes.
In support of connected classrooms that respect and safeguard student privacy, Common Sense Media has launched a School Privacy Zone campaign in an effort to initiate a national conversation about this critical issue. It's based on three fundamental principles:
- Students' personal information shall be used solely for educational purposes;
- Students' personal information or online activity shall not be used to target advertising to students or families; and
- Schools and education technology providers shall adopt appropriate data security, retention and destruction policies.
The Department of Education and Secretary Duncan share similar views - at Common Sense Media's School Privacy Zone Summit in February, Secretary Duncan asserted that privacy rules are "the seat belt of this generation" and that "protecting our students' information is more than a legal requirement. It is a moral imperative."
Educational software is big business. But these companies are not just competing in an $8 billion marketplace. They are being trusted with information about our children, and should be held to the highest standards to ensure our children's privacy and safety.