A new survey by privacy advocate SafeGov of parents in a large American city confirms what most sensible people already believed: parents want corporate-sponsored advertising out of our schools.
After spending much of the past two years asking parents in a dozen foreign countries how they feel about online privacy and advertising in their children’s schools, SafeGov decided it was time to do a deep dive on this subject back home in the United States. They looked for a city with a progressive school district committed to bringing technology into the classroom. They chose Boston. The underlying insight of the project is that while the boom in classroom use of Internet apps based on technology originally designed for consumers has been largely beneficial for students, it has also led to a potentially dangerous confusion of business models. The power of Internet apps comes from their ability not only to deliver content quickly and efficiently to vast numbers of users, but also to track how those users interact with the content.
In a school context this means that educational apps let teachers understand how students learn and how to help them overcome obstacles to learning. In the consumer market it means that app providers can profile users with uncanny accuracy in order to help advertisers better target them with ads. While the thousands of sophisticated educational apps flooding into America’s schools doubtless would not exist without the tremendous innovations and investments of the consumer Internet firms, we must draw a clear and bright line between education and advertising.
It happens that Boston public schools use one of the most popular consumer apps that have been adopted for classroom use, Google Apps for Education (or GAFE for short). While the survey does not examine specific education apps, it is well known that GAFE has an uneven track record when it comes to mixing consumer advertising with learning. While Google for years promised school administrators it would not profile students or teachers for ad targeting purposes, last year — under pressure from SafeGov and others — it was forced to admit it had done precisely that. To its credit, the online ad giant has since promised it would stop all such tracking and profiling in GAFE.
But consumer Internet apps like Google Apps are complex beasts with many moving parts. It is this sophistication which gives them their tremendous power to “understand what users are thinking” by observing what they do on the web (for an in-depth look at how this “data mining” works, see “The Natural History of Gmail Data Mining”). As it happens, Google’s admirable promise not to target ads at children who use GAFE suffers from a large loophole. The scope of Google’s promise is limited to only the “core” apps in GAFE such as Gmail and Google Docs. It does not extend to Google’s many popular ad-based consumer apps such as YouTube and Google Maps, which school administrators routinely turn on in their students’ GAFE account. Nor does it cover Google search, which is turned on by default in Google Apps and cannot be turned off. The result: when students or teachers log onto GAFE and start using these “non-core” consumer apps, they are tracked, profiled and targeted with ads, just like the hundreds of millions of consumers who use Google’s regular apps. For details of the loophole language in the GAFE agreement that Google requires schools to sign, see the illustration below.
There is no need to dwell at greater length on the missteps of one consumer Internet firm’s foray into the education market. We are confident that the pressure of parental opinion will persuade Google and the other players in this market to clarify their business models and establish a cleaner separation between advertising and education. The recent adoption of a voluntary student privacy pledge by over one hundred providers of education apps (including Google, Apple and Microsoft) is a major step forward. If that doesn’t suffice, the White House and both parties in Congress are promoting multiple proposals for stronger student privacy legislation.
App providers, school boards and school officials, consider yourselves on notice: parents and politicians are starting to pay close attention to the Internet apps you put in front of their children, and they have made it crystal clear they do not want these apps tainted by advertising or commercialism in any form.
Advertising Loopholes in Google Apps for Education Agreement