Google Docs Does Not Violate CIPA (or COPPA*)

The following is an email I’ve found myself writing more and more often. This is the longest version (and the latest one I’ve sent off). I’ve decided to share my take on the situation here on this blog for three reasons. First, I hope I can point people here instead of writing more emails. Second, I hope this might benefit people who might never email me (such as people searching the web for this topic). And third, I hope those of you familiar with such things (either legal experts or educators who are fighting this fight – on either side) will provide feedback in the comments.

The most important thing is to understand this: not having control over documents doesn’t constitute a violation of CIPA. Not having control over an online document doesn’t make Google Docs a violation of CIPA any more than not having control over a pen and paper makes spiral bound notebooks a violation of CIPA.It’s actually more or less irrelevant to the law.

CIPA does require that school districts filter the internet to protect students from content that is “harmful to minors” (and the primary concern is porn). The key is that schools need to show due dilligence in blocking sites they know are “harmful.” There is no expectation that schools will block “anything that could possiblly or potentially be inappropriate.”

CIPA (and the related FCC regulations) do require that there is a process in place for adults to unblock legitimately educational sites… and one of the only reasons that CIPA has not been struck down in the courts is due to the ease of unblocking a site using filtering software. Ideally, teachers will have access to an individual password for bypassing a school web filter. However, many school districts make this process anything but easy – and in many cases it is effectively unavailable to teachers. This is a legal problem (and in terms IT would understand, I believe this is a liability). You’d be well within your rights to request (and expect) Google Docs to be unblocked.

But… remember that COPPA forbids Google from collecting profile information for users under 14 years old. So younger students should not be using any Google tool, including Google Docs, that requires them to log in with a Google Account. This is because Google has no mechanism for collecting “verifiable parent consent” for student profile information. However, school districts excell at collecting “verifiable parent consent” – we call this permission slips. So, if you set up Google Apps: Education Edition, collect parent consent for students to use it, and control the student accounts yourselves, you’re in good shape with respect to COPPA. (For students 14 and over, you’re legally fine having them use Google Docs – and despite the fact that Google’s terms of service say users need to be of legal age to enter into a contract, which i 18 in California, Google does encourage the use of their products with students aged 14-18.)

Regarding some of the other concerns in the thread below… much of it is off topic or irrelevant to the issue of using Google tools (such as Docs) in the classroom. Here is my brief response to a few other concerns:

  • We’re not talking about outsourcing HR, we’re talking about instructional use.
  • Google is explicit about the intellectual property still belonging to the user. (And their privacy policies and practices are very strong.)
  • We’re not talking about sharing confidential student information, we’re talking about instructional use.
  • With respect to archiving documents for public disclosure: Use of Google Docs for teaching and learning is no different than using spiral bound notebooks, photocopied assignments, or ordinary blackboards. In fact, I’d say the online documents are generally better archived than anything a district can ordinarily pull off in the classroom… particularly with the history of revisions. In any case, if districts are not concerned about “archiving” handwritten student essays on paper, I don’t see why Google Docs would be any different. We’re talking about instruction here, not district business. It’s important to remember the difference.

Again, I hope this has been helpful – and I hope you’ll leave me feedback in the comments below.