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Commentary: The Privacy Debate Goes To School


Commentary: The Privacy Debate Goes to School

When a school accepts free computers for its students and then lets the donor corporation monitor pupils' online activities, should it have to obtain parental permission? To a lot of people, that's a no-brainer, but it's at the heart of a hot debate now unfolding in Washington.

On one side is the privacy lobby and the National Parent Teacher Assn., which believe parents have a right to know about such data mining--even if pupils are logging on anonymously--and to opt out. On the other side is a powerful lobby of high-tech companies offering schools free PCs, software, and satellite feeds. They agree with the National School Boards Assn. that local school districts should decide whether to get parental approval.

At a time when the Internet has heightened consumer awareness of privacy invasions, you would think that schools would be especially vigilant about the rights of kids. Yet districts that allow monitoring often keep parents in the dark. Thousands of districts have already accepted corporate handouts, signing contracts that let donor companies track millions of students over the age of 13. (The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, as of Apr. 21, prohibits tracking children under 13 without parental consent.)

Driving these deals are studies showing that teenagers spend some $100 billion a year and influence spending of up to twice that amount by their parents. Monitoring which Web sites teens visit allows companies to target ads more accurately to students, many of whom now see a steady stream of commercial messages while on the Internet at school. In some cases, ads appear even when kids use word-processing programs to write papers. Besides all that, some companies that contribute hardware and software take advantage of a special new tax deduction, aimed at closing the digital divide, that lets them write off twice the cost of equipment.

It's not hard to understand, then, why the tech biz is fighting so hard against a measure, approved by the House Education Committee on Apr. 12, that would require school districts to get parents' permission before collecting data on pupils for commercial purposes. The amendment, by Representative George Miller (D-Calif.), was added to the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and is similar to a measure Senator Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) plans to offer when ESEA hits the Senate floor in May.

In the middle of this storm is ZapMe! Corp. in San Ramon, Calif. The publicly traded Internet service provider offers a turnkey setup that schools can't resist: an entire computer lab--with PCs, software, teacher training, high-speed satellite connections, and a package of 13,000 pre-screened Web sites. ZapMe even maintains the equipment. It's no wonder schools are tripping over one another to sign up. So far, 1,500 schools are wired to ZapMe, and a further 2,500 will be by yearend.SHARED DATA. The catch is that school districts must agree to let ZapMe monitor students. While the company claims that the tracking is done anonymously, pupils' age and sex are known, as is the Zip Code of their school. ZapMe aggregates the data it collects and shares that info with advertisers, including Kodak, DeVry Institute, and Sylvan Learning Centers. Banner ads appear in a corner of the screen. As an ISP, ZapMe could collect users' real-life names and addresses as they registered at other Web sites, but the company insists that it does not do so.

Some parents may have no quarrel with this, but the problem is, if schools don't let parents know about the ZapMe agreement, they can't weigh in. "[These companies] want to turn each student into a packet of information," says lawmaker Miller. "And that's very valuable information, it turns out."

ZapMe has hired James Kohlmoos, a former Education Dept. official, to lobby against the parental-consent measure. "We agree with the goals of the legislation," says CEO Rick Inatome, "but we think local school districts should decide." To privacy experts, that's corporate doublespeak. "It's creepy that they're doing monitoring and not requesting parents' permission," says Richard M. Smith, the Brookline (Mass.) computer sleuth who has helped uncover privacy invasions by Net companies.

ZapMe has already made major changes in its business model to avoid an outright war with the privacy lobby. For example, says Inatome, a new contract will not require schools to guarantee that each PC gets a minimum of four hours of use daily. Schools will be able to pay a fee--$1,500 to $4,000 a month, depending on the number of PCs it has--instead of receiving banner ads. The company has also ended a "frequent-flier" program in which students built up points based on the time they spent online. And it has hired PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct quarterly privacy audits.

School districts, luckily, will soon have other options if they're not satisfied with those changes. As education over the Internet begins to blossom, numerous new ventures are expected. One, America Online Inc.'s AOL@School, will offer educational content to schools free of charge and "will do no tracking or targeting," vows AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein. At the least, schools should evaluate such new services. They may be worth waiting for.By Paula Dwyer; Dwyer Is News Editor in the Washington Bureau.Return to top

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