Thousands of schoolchildren go on the World Wide Web each day to study or play, without knowing that their “surfing” patterns are being studied by a company that many schools have hired to keep out online pornography and other objectionable Internet content, some anti-commercialism groups and privacy advocates are warning educators.
The company, Seattle-based N2H2 Inc., was tagged a “corporate predator” last week by Commercial Alert, a Washington-based group founded by the consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Other opponents of commercialization in schools and defenders of privacy are also criticizing the company.
Still, some educators say those criticisms are overblown.
The company’s “Bess” Internet-filtering service is used by schools serving about 14 million children in North America, making it one of the most popular of those services. Less than 10 percent of those children are actually studied by the company to understand how children use the Web.
The controversy stems from the company’s partnership with Roper Starch Worldwide Inc., a New York City- based market-research company, which since last September has offered the N2H2 student data for sale to other companies, charging between $10,000 and $20,000 a year to use it.
“Schools exist to teach kids to read and write and add and think, not for kids to be forced subjects of extraction of market research,” said Gary Ruskin, the director of Commercial Alert, which opposes what it considers excesses in commercial advertising. But N2H2 officials say their research is harmless, because neither the students nor their schools are identified individually.
Mandate for Filters
Nancy Willard, a research associate at the Center for Advanced Technology at the University of Oregon, disagrees. She said technology is letting companies access data that academic researchers could collect only by following strict standards, especially for federally financed studies.
For instance, she said, “I would have to establish that my research is to serve a social purpose, and I do not believe collecting data from students to support marketing to them meets the definition of serving a social purpose.”
What’s more, the collection and sale of such data may become more widespread, critics say, because of a recent federal law that will soon require all schools receiving federal technology funds to install Internet filters.
But some school officials are undisturbed by the issue.
“It’s part of the American way to identify your market,” said Kent A. Guske, the technology director of the Worth County schools, in Sylvester, Ga. The district, which enrolls 4,300 students in grades K-12, uses Bess at five schools.
“Food Lion has its MVP [discount] card,” Mr. Guske said, referring to the supermarket chain, “and they’re using that card to gather all kinds of information on buying habits of people using their store.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Company Criticized for Collecting Data On Children