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Watchdogs assail ZapMe ads in schools

Net provider ZapMe gets zinged, as consumer watchdogs call on state governors to scrutinize the company's business of giving schools free computers in exchange for passing on its sponsors' ads to students.

Consumer watchdogs zinged Net provider ZapMe today, calling on state governors to scrutinize the company's business of giving schools free computers in exchange for passing on its sponsors' ads to students.

Although companies and government officials often make headlines for doling out free computers, many schools are still left behind. With the high-tech economy facing students around every corner, schools have sought out creative ways to gain access to computers and related curriculum.

ZapMe, for that reason, has proven an attractive offer to many schools. It has provided 1,300 K-12 schools with five to 15 computers, wireless online access, teaching tools and a directory of education sites. Part of the deal: ZapMe's partners serve banner ads over this network. Overall, 6,000 schools nationwide have requested to be a part of the program.

Students who log on to ZapMe use a pseudonym in the form of an ID number and only provide their age and gender for statistics. ZapMe doesn't collect personal information about the students or track their Web surfing habits.

So what is the problem? In a letter to state governors and ZapMe's sponsors, more than 25 advocates, including Ralph Nader, warned that schools are selling out students to ZapMe and that parents should be made explicitly aware that their children are being marketed to in the classroom.

Among other things, the coalition criticized ZapMe for requiring students three times a year to bring its corporate sponsors' marketing materials home to their parents and that each computer, along with its ad banners, must be used at least four hours a day.

"ZapMe has designed these computers to serve as the front end of a sophisticated marketing and advertising scheme," stated the letter. "We oppose ZapMe's business operations in the schools."

The group says ZapMe oversteps the boundaries of traditional marketing in schools, such as Coke-sponsored score boards in gymnasiums or local restaurants' ads in yearbooks. The letter calls on state education boards to inform parents of ZapMe's presence on their campus and to get explicit written consent from parents when and if they collect personally identifiable information, which is required by law for children under age 13.

ZapMe scoffs at the implication that its services are being used to violate privacy. After all, any school with a connection to the Net is potentially exposing children and teenagers to endless sales pitches and tracking.

Moreover, ZapMe says that it will never pass on to partners the names, addresses and phone numbers of students or reports about which sites specific students like because it simply doesn't collect that information or plan to in the future.

"The thing they are claiming--that we are creating a research and surveillance machine--is absolutely not true," ZapMe CEO Rick Inatome said. "We've designed our space to provide the most secure and most private Internet experience that a school can get. I have four kids in school; if I ever thought that a company like ours was going to get personal data from my child while they were in school, I would blow up."

Some educators also say that the privacy concerns waged against ZapMe are overblown. Ted Maddock is the technology coordinator for Mt. Diablo High School in Concord, Calif. He says the marketing over ZapMe's network is actually tame compared to marketing on the public Net.

"On ZapMe they are controlling who is there, and the information the students give to ZapMe is relatively innocuous," he said

At Mount Diablo High, parents, students and teachers sign a Net user agreement. It heeds a warning to students not to give up personal information while online. Overall, Maddock says the school is getting a huge benefit in return for the marketing deal.

"(ZapMe) gave us a 15-station, state-of-the-art computer lab at no cost. For a low-wealth school that is quite an asset," he said. "We're preparing these kids to go into the real world, and wherever they go they're going to see advertising. We'd have to take out all the candy machines, soda machines, and go to mandatory uniforms to really shield them from marketing."

Still, some who signed the letter protesting ZapMe say states have an obligation to disclose to parents that companies like ZapMe are marketing in the schoolhouse.

"This equipment comes with a high price in terms of the integrity of the school by letting ZapMe use innocent school children for commercial gain and then passing it on to advertising and marketers," said Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert. "It's not a gift, it's a callous business proposal."

ZapMe's stock closed down 50 cents today at $9.13 per share.