Consumer Group Asks N.Y.’s Cuomo to Remove Google Official From Panel

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A consumer-rights group wants New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to remove Google’s executive chairman from his appointed position on a panel charged with advising the state on proposed spending on school technology. The group cites what it sees as the online-services company’s weaknesses in protecting student privacy.

In a letter to the governor, Consumer Watchdog, an organization that advocates its positions in the courts and through public campaigns, argues that Cuomo should remove Google’s Eric Schmidt from the New York Smart Schools Commission and block the company from providing technology through a proposed $2 billion state technology plan.

“[A]llowing one person from the gargantuan company that so dominates the Internet to play a primary role in shaping the policy is unfair and wrong,” the organization wrote on April 21.

The advocacy group also warns of Google’s growing political presence in Washington, and argues that it has a record of shaping technology policy to its own benefit. The group maintains that allowing Google to have a presence on the commission would give it potentially inappropriate sway over spending through the governor’s plan.

In January, Cuomo announced that he would call on state voters to approve a $2 billion bond to support school technology projects around the state. The measure would have among its goals improving infrastructure, reducing disparities in technology access between schools, using tech for improved teacher training, building students’ workforce skills, and promoting better communication between parents and teachers. The smart-schools commission is charged with providing advice to the state on how best to invest the money, the governor’s office has said.

Consumer Watchdog cites concerns raised by privacy advocates about Google’s practices, pointing to an Education Week story that describes a federal court case in which the company acknowledges having scanned the contents of millions of email messages sent and received by students using the company’s Apps for Education tool suite.

The lawsuit also accuses Google of having built “surreptitious” profiles of Apps for Education users that could be used for targeted ads. (A Google spokeswoman at the time told EdWeek that the company scans and indexes emails of all Apps for Education users for purposes that include advertising. But the company said the results of its data mining are not used to actually target ads to Apps for Education users unless they choose to receive them.) 

Google recently announced that it was amending the terms of its service and its privacy policies, a change that makes it more explicit that the company analyzes private data, including emails sent and received using its Gmail service, for a number of purposes, including the delivery of targeted ads.

The Consumer Watchdog letter comes as New York state has faced data-privacy concerns on a different front. New York lawmakers recently approved legislation that had the effect of terminating the state’s work with the data organization inBloom, after hearing concerns about the group’s ability to protect student information. InBloom officials later announced plans to phase out their operations over time.

Google’s press office declined comment to EdWeek on the Consumer Watchdog letter, and Cuomo’s office has not yet offered a response.

[UPDATE (April 30): New York state officials recently approved legislation creating a chief privacy officer to work with local districts and focus on protecting student information. A group of parents’ activists, local school board members, and others have written a letter this week state education commissioner John King and the board of regents, asking that they appoint an “independent privacy advocate” for that position, rather than someone inside the state department of education, or from the business world. The letter also calls for the state to take other steps, including making public contracts in which the state is providing “personal student data” to vendors and other third parties.]

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