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Federal Lawmakers Propose Expansion of Children's Online Privacy Protections

By guest blogger Sean Cavanagh

A bipartisan group of federal lawmakers has introduced legislation designed to ramp up protection on students' online privacy—an area of concern among parents and advocates in a growing number of states and school districts.

The measure, dubbed the "Do Not Track Kids Act," would expand the provisions of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which became law in 1998.

That law currently requires operators of commercial websites and Web-based services to put in place safeguards on student privacy when their materials are directed to children ages 12 and younger. Under the new legislation, those protections would be extended to cover teenagers between the ages of 13 and 15, barring Web-based providers from collecting personal information and information about students' locations without their consent.

One of the more interesting proposed safeguards in the bill, which is being introduced in both chambers of Congress, would create an "eraser button," presumably within the various digital tools, legallowing parents and children to strip out publicly available personal information "when technologically feasible," according to a statement by Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey, a Democrat and bill sponsor.

Markey has taken a big interest in student privacy issues while on the Hill. He recently wrote a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan questioning the agency's policies for protecting student data from being collected by commercial providers.

The legislation elicited a rare showing of cross-party cooperation among federal lawmakers.

"As a Congressman and a parent, I think it is vital to make sure kids are as safe on the computer as they are in our communities," said Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican and another bill sponsor. "I also believe that it is important that our teenagers receive protections. They are prone to mistakes. We need to make sure those mistakes aren't exploited online. ...It is our duty to champion online consumer choice and transparency."

The measure also drew statements of support from a number of advocates for protecting students' privacy online, including Common Sense Media and the Center for Digital Democracy, whose executive director, Jeff Chester, said "children and teens face a growing risk to their privacy today, as the power of 'Big Data' is used to track them nearly 24/7."

"We cannot afford to allow this generation of always-Internet-connected Americans to grow up in a world where their personal information can be easily made available to strangers and advertisers," Chester added.

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