For many educators, parents, and students, the internet has become the Garden of Eden, the ultimate resource, with the fruit of knowledge hanging from every tree.

Of course, there are the usual temptations, the rotten apples (that’s a small “a,” Mac lovers), and the occasional snake in the weeds. But beyond the purveyors of porn and the vendors of violence, one of the most obnoxious plunderers of the internet paradise has been spam.

Web users are learning how to get the spam off the menu. Firewall filters and browser blocks help, as have the internet service provider (ISP) policies that block unfettered relaying of bulk messages.

The courts and Congress have joined in the fray, with legislators touting laws that would make spam illegal and judges balancing free speech with the rights of solicitors. Although no court has yet found it unconstitutional to yell “spam!” in a crowded theater, the First Amendment protection afforded to spammers has been limited like other commercial speech.

Paradise lost

In Cyber Promotions Inc. vs. America Online, a U.S. District Court judge in Pennsylvania ruled that AOL’s eMail servers were “private” property. Therefore, AOL had the right to fence out unwanted spammers with blocking software.

The old common law theory of “Trespass to Chattels” reared its head in CompuServe Inc. vs. Cyber Promotions. Like the 17th-century Londoner who sued his neighbor for having an affair with his wife, spammers could be liable for intentionally “touching” your computer with a few less-than-tender bytes.

While other legislation is pending before Congress and in several states to ban the practice of spam advertising, the bottom line for school officials is: With the screening software available, keeping the spam out of your school computers should be a piece of cake.

Banner day

But there are other, more benign serpents lurking amid the greenery of the web. The proliferation of banner-type advertising on web pages poses some interesting issues for educators.

Rather than charge admission to web sites that offer information and other services, site builders offer billboard space to “sponsors.” In many cases, a mouse click on the banner will whisk you through a hyperlink to the home page of the advertiser. In other instances, a web page using frames technology can create a seamless link that opens the commercial web site in a new windowpane on the web page you are viewing.

Most educators would probably think twice about accepting an offer from a textbook company to supply reduced-price history books filled with advertisements, paid ads in overhead panels of school buses, or flashy commercial posters to decorate school hallways. But how many have questioned students using school computers to browse web sites filled with colorful come-ons? Many sites that cater to young web surfers also tout everything from toys to sugarcoated breakfast cereal.

Of course, for every problem there is at least one solution. Products like Siemens’ Web Washer that wipe banner ad content off web pages as they download may be seen as a convenient way to reduce the number of commercials reaching your students as they research homework topics.

But these relatively new programs are not without technical glitches and may give rise to legal skirmishes. After all, advertisers paying to reach web site visitors will be less than pleased if their efforts can be erased like yesterday’s blackboard math quiz.

Advertisers may put pressure on web sites to block access to browsers with anti-ad plug-ins. The worst-case scenario would be legal action against users (like your school district) who intentionally block the commercial banners. After all, your students are using the free stuff that they sponsor.

Web Washer