When the noted science fiction author Robert Heinlein used the acronym TANSTAAFL in his novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, he was coining a hard-to-pronounce catchword for the truism that There Ain’t No Such Thing As a Free Lunch. No phrase could more aptly capture the impact of exchanging free hardware or net access to schools for allowing the “donor” to display advertisements in the headers, footers, and borders of the web pages whenever a user is online.

One of these companies, ZapMe!, gives schools “free” computers packaged with a satellite internet service. The ad-bots show up in one corner of the monitor.

Much like the free cable TV service available under the Channel One program, the ZapMe! entrepreneurs want a target audience for their sponsors. By obtaining information on student grade levels, the company is able to target its ads to a particular age group. Each time a student uses the equipment, the ads are a fixed part of the screen content.

Critics assail the pollution of educational programs with commercial come-ons, while supporters extol the benefits of greater student access to the web (which, of course, is de riguer for school districts that want to be a part of the latest trends in the ed biz). Proponents also point out that advertising is ubiquitous on the web and they minimize the impact of targeted appeals to their students’ buying habits (and other more subtle impacts, such as building name recognition and brand loyalty).

On the other side of the coin is the new WebWasher software from Siemens AG, the telecommunications giant. This program, which is offered free to schools, is claimed to detect and obscure 90 percent of the ads that flourish on an increasing number of web sites. As a bonus, the program may even speed up the downloading of desired content. Critics of this approach point out that this type of program can often reduce the graphical content of web pages they believe hold the interest of students.

The juxtaposition of the ad and anti-ad software expands the ethical dilemmas that face school officials. Do we let the ads flow with their intended mind-washing content or do we flush them away? That’s the choice administrators, teachers, and school boards face. But the availability of competing technologies could lead to some legal complications as well.

School districts taking advantage of the free hardware for ads enter into contractual relationships that usually require minimum usage and guarantee that students will be exposed to the commercials. Installing any software that defeats the ads would certainly violate those agreements.

But individual schools, teachers, and students may have a different view, and the control of “ad-cleaning” software at each site would be difficult. It would be ironic indeed if a school system obtained free computers and ended up being sued because the users of those machines circumvented the banner ads that paid for them.

Well, no one ever said that the fast-moving technical advances flooding our schools would reduce the number of legal and ethical issues that already abound. And, of course, Heinlein’s timeless prediction embodied in TANSTAAFL is food for thought in any context, including the cyber world.