Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Student Privacy Pledge

In the fifties, under scrutiny (actual Congressional hearings) and attack (Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent) the comic book industry hatched the comics code, a special seal that would guarantee parents that a comic book contained nothing unsavory. Of course the film industry had done something similar-- creating a rating system that would assert that the public could enter a movie theater safely.

The motivation behind both of these was simple and transparent-- if we offer to police our own industry, maybe the government won't feel the need to step in and hammer us with regulations we can neither stand nor control.

Meet the Software and Information Industry Association. Among other things, the SIIA  "aggressively promotes and protects the interests of its member companies in legal and public policy debates by working with state, federal and international policymakers and participating in landmark legal decisions."

The SIIA is a busy group, and they are also the creators of the Student Privacy Pledge. Signers of the pledge have promised not to do things like maintain files on students, nor collect share or sell student personal information-- at least, not for any reasons other than those authorized by educational institutions. The pledge also involves promises to do things like "Collect, use, share, and retain student personal information only for purposes for which we were authorized by the educational institution/agency, teacher or the parent/student." 257 companies have signed the pledge.

If you find this less than reassuring, well-- consider other activities of the SIIA as reported by Missouri Education Watchdog.

For instance, SIIA reps recently flew out to Colorado to oppose their proposed student privacy bill. They found the protection of personal information too broad, and they don't care for the provision involving publication of the names of companies that misbehave.

Or back when the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed suit against Google (one of the signers of the pledge) for setting chromebooks with a default setting of "spy creepily on students"-- the SIIA was there to defend Google.

Is the pledge even enforceable? The SIIA says that if someone who signs the pledge breaks it, that opens up the company to FTC charges of deceptive practices. So the pledge is kind of enforceable, sort of maybe. If you think a company is violating the pledge, the SIIA suggests you reach out to that company. Or you can file an FTC complaint. Or you can pound sand.

When wolves are worried that the farmer is going to bring in real watchdogs to keep an eye on the henhouse, it makes sense for the wolves to promise to patrol each other as they guard the henhouse. It does not, however, make sense for the hens to relax and be any less vigilant.

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