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Student-Data Privacy, Net Neutrality Make Cameos in State of the Union Address


Community colleges and childcare were featured heavily in President Barack Obama's seventh State of the Union address, but the issues of most interest to Digital Education over the past year—net neutrality, broadband access for schools, and student data privacy—received only brief mention.

After a speech at the Federal Trade Commission last week in which the president called for a new federal Student Digital Privacy Act, as well as new privacy protections for consumers, expectations were high that the topic would receive prominent mention in the prime-time address.  But here's what we heard:

No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids. We are making sure our government integrates intelligence to combat cyber threats, just as we have done to combat terrorism. And tonight, I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyber-attacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children's information.

In other words, no specifics. Observers from both industry and education eager for a look at the legislative language the White House will propose will have to continue waiting. Likewise, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education said no timeline is yet available for "model terms of service" and other privacy-related tools that Obama promised on the department's behalf.

Nevertheless, interest groups generally reacted with optimism to the momentum that has been building around the issue.

"Tonight's speech was indicative of the nation's strong, ongoing effort to prioritize protecting student data as we use this valuable information to personalize learning and help our young people achieve their goals," said the Consortium for School Networking and the Data Quality Campaign in a joint statement.

The one piece of student-data-privacy related work that does seem to be moving forward is the voluntary industry pledge put forth by the Software & Information Industry Association and the Future of Privacy Forum, both based in Washington. As my colleagues Sean Cavanagh and Michele Molnar reported yesterday, the list of signatories to the pledge is now up to 91 companies, including Google.

Improved access to high-speed Internet connections for schools, also a focus of the Obama Administration, received even less mention. After the Federal Communication Commission's historic recent votes to raise the cap and change the priorities of the federal E-rate program, the President's focus has been more on consumer broadband access (detailed here.)

The one Digital Education-related issue that did make it into (and around) the State of the Union in a fairly prominent way was net neutrality, an issue of significant concern for many in the education community. Here's what the president had to say during the speech:

I intend to protect a free and open Internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world.

Supplemental materials posted online by the White House provided additional details and zingers:

That's a principle known as "net neutrality"—and it says that an entrepreneur's fledgling company should have the same chance to succeed as established corporations, and that access to a high school student's blog shouldn't be unfairly slowed down to make way for advertisers with more money.

And in a statement attributed to the President, the White House recommended four net-neutrality-related rules to the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that ultimately must grapple with the issue:

  • No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your [Internet service provider] should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player—not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP—gets a fair shot at your business.
  • No throttling. Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others—through a process often called "throttling"— based on the type of service or your ISP's preferences.
  • Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs—the so-called "last mile"—is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.
  • No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a "slow lane" because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet's growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.

Photo: Vice President Joe Biden, left, and House Speaker John Boehner listen as President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Jan. 20. Photo Credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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