Senator eyes fall for action on student data privacy bill

Senator eyes fall for action on student data privacy bill
© Anne Wernikoff

Despite the presence of several rival bills, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) thinks lawmakers can join forces and move on a single student data privacy bill by this fall.

“We will be working together,” he told The Hill after introducing the Safe Kids Act with Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.)

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The measure would ban education companies — online homework portals, student email programs, digital teaching aides, etc. — from selling or using student data for targeted ads and require them to meet certain data security standards when handling student information.

Federal regulators would be empowered to punish any companies violating the bill’s provisions.

“Sen. Daines and I wanted to introduce a bill that emphasized the importance of preserving confidential data that may be used by private companies,” Blumenthal said.

While student data privacy has become a bipartisan issue in the upper chamber, the Daines-Blumenthal bill is a competitor to a measure from Sens. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Utah governor calls Bannon a 'bigot' after attacks on Romney MORE (R-Utah) and Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyNet neutrality supporters predict tough court battle over FCC's repeal plan Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Driverless car bill hits Senate speed bump MORE (D-Mass.).

Both bills aim to bar private companies from selling or using student data to target ads while also setting data security standards for these firms.

Each offering is trying to shore up the shoddy record of student data management as schools turn to third-party, cloud-based services.

But a major differentiator between the two bills is the method of enforcement.

The Hatch-Markey offering would update the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which the Department of Education enforces. Student digital privacy advocates have accused the DOE of not aggressively policing FERPA abusers.

The Daines-Blumenthal effort would empower the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to go after wayward companies.

“I’m focused on particularly the challenges of enforcing it and making sure there are penalties that deter anyone,” Blumenthal said.

But he doesn’t see much daylight between the two bills and believes they can come together in a matter of months.

“I think we’ll probably work out the differences,” he said.

If senators can coalesce around one bill, Blumenthal likes its chances of moving sometime after the August recess.

“I feel there is a lot of grassroots support,” he said, citing letters of support from parents’ groups, educators and digital rights advocates.

The lower chamber has a companion bill from Reps. Luke Messer (R-Ind.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.), which has White House backing.

“Evolving technology has forever changed the way teachers instruct and students learn,” Messer and Polis said in a joint statement last week. “It's important that we continue to encourage innovation and harness its potential to improve student learning, while also providing parents and educators the certainty that operators cannot misuse student data."