Tech and the State of the Union

ConnectSafely Policy Director, Maria Spencer

ConnectSafely Policy Director, Maria Spencer

On Tuesday night, President Obama fulfilled one of his constitutional duties to “give to the Congress information on the State of the Union” (SOTU) before a joint session of Congress.

Millions watched the address on TV and followed along on social media. (The increasing role of social media in contemporary SOTUs is a far cry from the early days when President Thomas Jefferson opted to send his message in writing.) And while all of Washington waited to hear the president’s vision, the technology community must have paid extra attention after a week of “teasers” highlighting the president’s plans for increased online security, electronic privacy and the need to address identity theft. In the speech, Obama called for a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights which will give Americans the right to decide what personal information gets collected, and how it gets used and stored securely. He also proposed a Student Data Privacy Act to address the way that companies collect information on children for targeted advertising. Both the House and Senate have responded with draft proposals.

Tech issues

The president declared in the opening of his speech that the state of the union was strong. On technology issues, he was just as forceful. “I intend to protect a free and open Internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community…so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world.” In reference to astronaut Scott Kelly’s planned year in space, Obama even gave a shout out to Instagram; once again, demonstrating just how far social media has come and will continue to evolve—even in outer space.


As part of the president’s foreign policy push, Obama cautioned that “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.” To address the growing issues of cybersecurity, he urged Congress to pass legislation to combat identity theft and protect our children’s data. The president also spoke of American values in addressing offensive stereotypes and behaviors as we continue to defend free speech and expression. “We do these things not only because they’re right, but because they make us safer.” He concluded that “I want future generations to know that we are a people who see our differences as a great gift, that we are a people who value the dignity and worth of every citizen.”


Waxing poetic is fine – State of the Union addresses are usually filled with big ideas and visions for a better future. But how will we move from speech-making and politicking to addressing in a real and relevant way those issues of importance to our community? The president has spoken, and now it is up to the Congress to act. I’d like to suggest a few issues that deserve more consideration in the 114th Congress and among state legislatures, the technology and education policy community and the general public (in no order of priority):

  • No Child Left Behind Reauthorization.

How do we position connected technology in that discussion and for the next generation of users who will be educated in ways far different than students today? Further, federal funding should also shift in support of the use of technology and education and awareness of positive social emotional development and promoting social emotional learning and STEM education, especially among girls, children of color and children in rural and urban communities.

  • The vast majority of things that happen online are positive, yet laws being considered or passed don’t always reflect that trend.  

Policy should be driven by facts, not fear or misinformation.

  • Take another look at the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child.

Congress should also consider ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Child (CRC). The treaty has not been ratified by the Senate but includes the right to protection from discrimination based on their parent’s/guardian’s sex, race, religion, etc. It also supports protection for children to include rights to health care and freedom of expression. Some opponents have expressed concerns about threats to control over national domestic policy and conflicts with US Constitutional processes.

  • Protecting Student Data Privacy.

Core to ConnectSafely’s mission is the protection of student data privacy. We have written and spoken about safeguarding student data and the ability for students to have the rights over and control of their own data. The president’s announcement and draft proposals by Congress provide the renewed opportunity to ensure that policies fully consider these issues for our children. ConnectSafely will be watching to make sure that these policies truly benefit our children.

As ConnectSafely’s new policy director, I look forward to working with our entire community to address these issues. What will be critically important first and foremost is to have a conversation that includes policy makers on the challenges faced in particular among our youth about safety, privacy and security in social media. I hope that those of you who support our mission at ConnectSafely can work with us on building more balanced, data-driven policies that will allow for the use of and access to connected technology for all.


Maria Spencer (@CSafelyPolicyMS), ConnectSafely’s Washington, D.C.-based policy director, has over fifteen years of public policy and advocacy experience representing organizations including the American Heart Association, the Power Mobility Coalition, the American Society for Health System Pharmacists (ASHP), the National Marrow Donor Program and – prior to joining ConnectSafely, as the director of federal affairs for the Arthritis Foundation.