A proposed amendment to the omnibus education bill now before the Senate would require schools to get parental consent before allowing marketers to collect any information from kids at school.
If approved, the measure could seriously affect the way students use the Internet. Schools would have to inform parents of any data that might be collected by a website visited by students at school -- including anonymous data on where kids surf -- and how it would be used. Parents would have to give consent before any such data could be gathered.
Nonprofits dedicated to fighting commercialization in schools support the amendment. Commercial Alert, a watchdog group founded by Ralph Nader, is pushing for approval.
"More and more, corporations are trying to turn schools into market research facilities," Gary Ruskin, the organization's director, said. "We compel students under force of law to attend school. While they're there, we should protect them from corporate predators."
But lobbying groups representing the advertising industry, school administrators and school boards are all opposed, calling the measure impractical, meddling and unnecessary.
"I'm not sure what problem they're trying to solve," Bruce Hunter said.
Hunter lobbies on behalf of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). "I'm sure there's been some abuse, somewhere," Hunter said, "but there are 53 million kids in school. You don't create federal law to cut off a few bad apples."
If approved, the amendment -- proposed by Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) and Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut) -- would create a mountain of paperwork for teachers, and could prevent kids from doing research online, Hunter said. He thinks current laws that prevent schools from giving out personal information about students offer students sufficient privacy protection.
Because it regulates collection of personal and aggregate data, and pertains to kids up to 17 years old, the amendment goes further than the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
That law, on the books since 1998, requires websites to get parental consent before collecting personally identifiable information -- like name or e-mail address -- at any time from kids younger than 13.
Critics say that the difficulty of preventing any data collection -- even anonymous data -- without parental consent would, in practice, force administrators to shut kids off from the Internet at school.
"Why would we want to stop kids from using the Internet to do a research paper?" Hunter asked.
But supporters of the amendment don't buy those arguments.
"This is a no-brainer," said Jim Metrock, president of a nonprofit in Birmingham, Alabama, called Obligation that is dedicated to fighting commercialization in schools.
"When a child is forced to give up valuable and private information, parents need to know about it," he said. "Children ought to be offered an alternative to giving information in order to use the facilities of the schools."
He did not think the measure would inappropriately infringe upon local control over schools.
"Parents don't know about what's happening," Metrock said. "Due to poor funding, school systems are signing on with marketers left and right. This amendment is a responsible and prudent way the federal government can require parental consent."
Metrock started Obligation five years ago after he learned that his son had to watch Channel One every day, which includes two minutes of commercials. The school had agreed to show Channel One in return for television sets that the company provided, he said.
Advertising trade organizations are against the amendment. In a letter to the chairman of the Senate committee handling the bill, the American Advertising Federation urged him to oppose the amendment, arguing that it would infringe upon local control and cut schools off from valuable resources.
"Reasonable agreements with the business community can play an important role in providing needed funds," the letter reads. "The amendment could have unintended consequences such as prohibiting many existing school fundraising efforts and stopping the supply of some educational materials to students."
Shelby and Dodd first introduced the language in the amendment in May 2000 as a freestanding bill called the Student Privacy Protection Act. It died before reaching a vote last year, and they reintroduced it in February.
Now repackaged as an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it will likely get voted on sometime next week. A companion amendment is pending before the House.
In part, the proposed legislation owes its existence to the now infamous, and essentially defunct, Zapme corporation.
Although the company has changed its name and gotten out of the education business, the fallout lingers from its practice of trading computer labs to schools for the right to serve ads to students.
The scandal raised awareness of the increasing level of commercialization in schools, and helped spur Shelby and Dodd to introduce the original bill.
According to a University of Wisconsin study published last September, schools use nearly 20 times as many corporate-sponsored education materials as they did a decade ago, and allow more than five times as much space -- from stadium billboards to rooftops -- for ads and logos than in 1990.
Over 2,000 schools took up Zapme, now called rStar Networks, on its offer before the company canceled the program last fall following a deluge of financial losses and bad press.
Amendment supporters are quick to point to Zapme, as well as Channel One, as evidence that students need more protection from marketers in school.
Sources on both sides of the issue acknowledged the vote on the amendment would likely be close. Hunter predicted that a compromise on some of the more controversial parts of the amendment would be reached.
Jeffrey Benner, WiredNews.com. May 17, 2001
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