Massachusetts Bill To Ban Data-Mining of Student Emails

Bradley Shear by Bradley Shear, Law Office of Bradley S. Shear
Monday, February 25, 2013

Massachusetts has become the first state to introduce legislation that would ban companies that provide cloud computing services from processing student data for commercial purposes. MA Bill 331 is sponsored by Rep. Carlo Basile and it was referred to the House Committee on Education on January 22, 2013.
MA Bill 331 states, "Section 1. Notwithstanding any general or special law to the contrary any person who provides a cloud computing service to an educational institution operating within the State shall process data of a student enrolled in kindergarten through twelfth grade for the sole purpose of providing the cloud computing service to the educational institution and shall not process such data for any commercial purpose, including but not limited to advertising purposes that benefit the cloud computing service provider."
The bill may be interpreted to mean that firms who offer cloud computing services to Massachusetts academic institutions that enroll kindergarten through twelfth graders may not utilize the information contained in student emails for monetary gain. If this legislation is enacted, cloud service providers may not serve ads to students on school provided digital accounts based upon a student's digitally expressed thoughts or ideas.
Internet advertisers monetize the thoughts and/or ideas of its users via behavioral advertising. Digital behavioral advertising may occur when an email service provider scans the content of an email and then serves the user ads based upon the information it processes. For example, if a student emailed his health or sex education teacher to ask about sexually transmitted diseases or teen pregnancy, MA Bill 331 would ban a cloud computing service provider from serving ads for condoms or other related products or services to the student's school owned digital account.
According to a statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, "young people are cognitively and psychologically defenseless against advertising." Therefore, would it be acceptable if a teacher was paid to review student class work, noted student preferences, and then returned graded assignments with offers for discounted merchandise based upon a student's home work or in class assignments?
Since it would be a breach of the National Education Association's Code of Ethics if a teacher utilizes personal knowledge obtained from his students for private advantage, shouldn't it also be a breach of the Code of Ethics if a cloud computing service provider utilizes an algorithm to do the same digitally? Because it is not acceptable if teachers offered discounts based upon student preferences gleaned from school work it should also not be acceptable if a computer algorithm processed the same information digitally and then served ads based upon the same data.
While MA Bill 331 is a good start, it should be amended to cover post-secondary students because Massachusetts is home to tens of thousands of college students and some of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world. Shouldn't students in college and graduate school also have their student-teacher interactions protected from being utilized for commercial purposes?
In general, Google's Apps For Education standard agreement provides schools the ability to serve ads to its students. The agreements generally state that all advertising revenue generated will be retained by Google so at this point it appears that schools do not have an economic incentive to turn on the behavioral advertising function. However, what will stop Google from approaching schools and stating that in order to continue receiving Google Apps for Education for free the advertising function must be enabled? Should graded school assignments and personal student-teacher interactions be utilized to serve ads to students in order to pay for educational software?
Educational software is expensive and because of the terrible recession that our country has experienced many states have seen steep cuts in education funding. While Massachusetts public schools have not yet experienced the same type of funding cuts that have beleaguered many other states what will happen when Massachusetts decides it must recalibrate how it dedicates its resources and K-12 schools are negatively affected by this change?
Tens of thousands of kindergarten through twelfth grade students in Massachusetts may already be at risk of having their school work data mined for advertising purposes. For example, students who attend Burlington Public Schools and Plymouth Public Schools in Massachusetts utilize Google Apps For Education. If students at these schools use their school provided Gmail based accounts after they graduate or link their personal YouTube or Google Plus account to their school sanctioned Gmail account their student-teacher interactions and class work may be monetized by Google and/or its advertising partners. However, if MA Bill 331 is enacted it may stop third parties from being able to monetize the digital thoughts and ideas of Massachusetts students and better protect their privacy and security.
96 percent of Google's $37.9 billion in 2011 revenue was earned from advertising. Is Google providing schools free access to its Google Apps For Education software in the hopes that it will eventually earn advertising revenue from data mining our children's digital school assignments and education-related interactions? Absent state and/or federal laws that ban the data mining of our children's class work on school provided digital accounts companies that offer educational cloud computing services to our schools may utilize our kid's personal private data for commercial gain.
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