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Collected Student Data Cause Privacy Stir, Marketing Yawn

While news of a filtering service selling schoolchildren's aggregate Web surfing habits has privacy advocates and school officials questioning the practice, direct marketers say the data are practically worthless.

The catalyst for the debate was the passage in December of the Children's Internet Protection Act, which requires public schools to use filtering services to qualify for federal money for Internet endeavors.

Internet infrastructure company N2H2 Inc. and its Bess filtering service are at the center of the latest data sharing dispute, but the company claims its practices are legal and responsible.

“We have absolutely no personally identifiable information, therefore it's never passed to anyone else. We don't even know which school they attend, much less anything that would be personally identifiable,” said Ken Collins, director of content management at N2H2, Seattle. “What we furnish is the sites that students go to, and we do that in a completely anonymous fashion.”

Through a partnership forged in September, N2H2 provides market research firm Roper Starch, Harrison, NY, with anonymous Internet usage information by broad geographical area from public schools that use its filtering service.

N2H2 said it provides the filtering service to 14 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade, about 40 percent of public school students in the United States who use a filtering service. Roper Starch then offers the N2H2 data as a monthly measurement report called Class Clicks that includes information on the top 1,000 Web sites children visited, broken down by geographic region. Roper Starch charges $10,000 to $20,000 per year for the data.

So far, N2H2 is the only Internet filtering firm reported to be making school surfing data available. In fact, another filtering provider, SurfControl PLC, reportedly said it does not collect schoolchildren's surfing data.

Although a Roper Starch spokesman would not comment on clients, The Wall Street Journal reported that the company's only two Class Clicks clients are educational portal BigChalk Inc. and the U.S. Defense Department.

As a result of the report, at least two Washington consumer advocacy groups have written to the Defense Department asking it to divulge its relationship with Class Clicks and N2H2.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a Freedom of Information Act request, which may require the Defense Department to provide records of all dealings with Class Clicks. Commercial Alert, an organization that opposes excessive commercialism, advertising and marketing, demanded that the Defense Department cut its ties to Class Clicks and N2H2.

Even though Commercial Alert does not have an official stance on Internet filtering in schools, director Gary Ruskin said, “Any mandatory filter provision or effort to protect kids from pornography really shouldn't be an occasion or an excuse to open them up to commercial predators like N2H2.”

Meanwhile, it appears that N2H2 and Class Clicks are in the clear from a legal standpoint. Since the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act only prohibits the collection of personally identifiable data, there does not seem to be a legal issue with Class Clicks.

“If the information intended to be aggregated and shared with a third party cannot be attached to any personally identifiable information or information that would allow contact with a child, then it would appear to fall outside the scope of COPPA,” said Marc Roth, an Internet marketing attorney at Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner LLP, New York.

Still, all the arguing may be pointless if no one wants to buy the data. Buying behavior is key for direct marketers, and there certainly is not any of that available through Class Clicks or N2H2.

“It might be useful for a content developer or maybe a product designer, but for a direct marketer I don't think there's any kind of use at all for this information,” said Al Noyes, chief operating officer at SmarterKids.com, Needham, MA. SmarterKids.com is an e-tailer offering children's educational products.

At least one Internet marketer targeting teens agreed.

“From a marketing standpoint that information is interesting and we'd like to have it, but I wouldn't say that it's particularly valuable in and of itself, and there are certainly other ways to harvest this information,” said David Grossman, business development analyst at Alloy, New York. “It's something we'd like to know, but I don't think it's anything we'd be willing to pay for.”

Plus, Noyes questioned whether the returns are worth the aggravation of charges of potential privacy violations for N2H2.

Though marketers may not be interested in the data, privacy advocates remain concerned about the implications of the situation.

“We'd be uncomfortable saying that we're going to rely on market forces to settle this,” said Rob Courtney, policy analyst at the Center for Democracy & Technology, Washington. “Some ground rules need to be set now so that later on we don't find ourselves in a worse situation.”

He added that while he had every reason to believe that N2H2 does not collect personally identifiable information, the possibility for such data collection exists.

Perhaps then marketers would be interested.

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