The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) submitted the following comments to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on the future of its Universal Service Fund, which provides critical resources to connect students learning from home to their lessons and to help make broadband affordable for low-income families. CDT applauds the efforts of the Commission to close the homework gap and bridge the digital divide and offers these comments on how to connect students and families while protecting their privacy. A failure to garner students’ and families’ trust by protecting students’ privacy can chill participation and hamper the USF’s effectiveness.
The pandemic has accelerated existing trends in education technology that exacerbate risks to student privacy and the security of their data. At the beginning of the semester, schools reopened their doors and students returned to classrooms, but educators were quickly confronted with the hard reality that the pandemic is not over. Surges of Covid-19 cases have prompted classes and even entire schools to cancel in-person classes and once again switch to remote learning. In many cases, remote learning infrastructure developed during the 2020-2021 school year was no longer in place. Even beyond Covid-19 outbreaks, extreme weather events such as hurricanes, wildfires, or flooding have been forcing schools to close for days at a time, necessitating schools’ use of remote learning strategies.
The past year has given schools unprecedented experience with online learning, and the ongoing pandemic continues to clearly demonstrate the continuing need for these kinds of technologies. However, as schools continue to rely on remote learning technology, student privacy remains at risk, including through the use of student activity monitoring software and escalating cybersecurity risks. To help schools, families, and student navigate those risks, the Commission should:
- Clarify that the monitoring requirement of the Children’s Internet Protection Act does not require schools to engage in pervasive tracking of students’ online activity.
- Expand flexible USF support for mitigating increasing cybersecurity threats posed to schools.