Data From Free Computer Labs Raise Privacy Concerns: A company that places state-of-the-art computers in schools free of charge—in exchange for the opportunity to expose students to advertising—came under fire last week from a diverse coalition of media and advocacy groups.
The coalition sent letters to all governors and chairmen of education committees in state legislatures charging the San Ramon, Calif.-based ZapMe! Corp. with invading students' privacy without the permission of their parents. In addition, it sent letters to other companies, including the Microsoft Corp. and Dell Computer Co., that have partnerships with ZapMe!, urging them to break off relations with ZapMe!
"ZapMe! violates the privacy of schoolchildren, misuses the schools and compulsory-schooling laws to force children to watch ads during school time, and degrades the moral authority of schools and teachers by turning them into instruments of corporate advertising and marketing," the letters contend.
Drafted by Gary Ruskin, the director of Commercial Alert, a Washington-based group that monitors advertising, the letters call for state laws requiring companies to seek parental consent before gathering personal information about children.
Bills for a similar law at the federal level were introduced in both chambers of Congress last fall and have been referred to committees. California passed such a law last year.
Schools that sign contracts with ZapMe! receive free computer labs of from five to 15 computers with high-speed Internet connections, along with technical support. In return, they agree to have the computers used for at least four hours each day and permit ads to be flashed in a corner of the computers' screens. Student computer users are each assigned an electronic identification, and schools provide ZapMe! with their ages and gender, but not their names, addresses, or phone numbers, according to ZapMe!
The company, which was launched in 1998 and began selling stock to the public in October, has contracts with 6,000 schools, involving more than a million students.
While the ZapMe! business model is not illegal, Mr. Ruskin said, it is "irredeemable." Although ZapMe! doesn't provide actual names of students to advertisers, he said, the company gets "a tremendously valuable stream of advertising and market research information on students."
Rick Inatome, the chief executive officer of ZapMe!, disputed any charges that his company is invading the privacy of students. He emphasized that the company deliberately asks schools not to turn over students' personal information.
"We ask the school to provide broad demographic data about who is using the [Internet] space at any time," he said. He explained the company doesn't turn over to advertisers individual profiles on students even without their names, but only "insight into what types of people have viewed their ad in a broad demographic reach."
The advertising aspect of ZapMe! stirred debate in the Hartford, Conn., area last year when the school board of the 8,500-student Bristol district decided to accept computers from the company.
In the end, said Rich Gagliardi, the district's director of technology, "the technology committee felt the exposure to advertising in the ZapMe! computers was no different than using a commercial search engine." He said that while questions were raised about collection of information on students, school officials believed that ZapMe!'s gathering of demographic data was "reasonable and not an intrusion."
In North Carolina, however, the 9,000-student Chapel Hill-Carrboro city school district rejected an opportunity to sign a contract with ZapMe! last year, said Neil G. Pederson, the superintendent of the district. School leaders were willing to accept students' exposure to advertising, but objected to an option on the ZapMe! screen for students to click on a button that took them to a virtual shopping mall—called ZapMall—that catered to their age group.
"What bothered us was that there was a level of enticement for students to engage in e-commerce," Mr. Pederson said. "We wanted the computers used for academic purposes."
One signer of the letter criticizing ZapMe! said she did so because of her general concern about increasing commercialism in schools.
Diane E. Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, said she was worried that more and more funding for schools is coming from corporations that "are trying to figure out ways to try to make money off of children."
Civic Commitment: The city of Birmingham, Ala., is winning praise from local school leaders for its decision to help underwrite education technology.
The city is paying $30 million of the $52 million price tag to bring Internet access and up-to-date computers to the 75 schools in the Birmingham district. District officials say the schools will soon be transformed from having limited numbers of outdated computers to having three new computers with Internet access per classroom, plus a laptop for every teacher and administrator.
"It's unusual to receive such giant support from a city in relation to the operation of a school district program," said Johnny E. Brown, the superintendent of Birmingham schools. The commitment, he said, shows that the community is concerned that its young people might end up on the wrong side of the "digital divide" between better-off and poorer families in access to computer technology.
Ninety-five percent of the district's 38,000 students are African-American, and 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
The superintendent credits the city's pledge to finance the technology, made in 1998, with putting the district in a favorable light to receive grants from the federal government's E-rate program. Subsidies under the education-rate program help pay to connect schools to the Internet, but not for computers or teacher training. The district has received $18.4 million through that program.
This month, the Birmingham school board approved a $25 million contract with Compaq Computer Corp. that will use most of the technology funding from the city to place thousands of computers in the hands of teachers and students. The money will pay for more than 8,000 desktop computers, 2,400 laptops, and 2,300 printers, plus software, training, and technical support.
—Mary Ann Zehr
Vol. 19, Issue 20, Page 8