A free new web-browser companion could change the way teachers use the internet with their students.

Called Third Voice, the downloadable software allows internet users to highlight text and post sticky-note-like comments on any web site.

When the software is enabled, Third Voice “inline” notes can be posted in one of three ways: publicly, so that anyone also using the software can read them; within a group to be shared with only certain viewers; or privately to leave messages only the author can access.

The notes do not actually change the content of the web page, but are stored on a central server and recalled at the click of an icon. Only surfers actively using Third Voice can see the icon.

The software is available for Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 and 5.0, and Netscape Navigator 4.0.

It’s the group application that might best lend itself to the school setting, said Eng-Siong Tan, cofounder and chief executive of Third Voice.

He said teachers could use the software to provide an extra level of guidance to students on the web.

A teacher, for example, could create a group for his or her students and leave comments or questions for them on specific web sites. The students would then visit the sites to review the notes and reply to the comments or questions.

Students could also hold an online debate about an issue right at the source of the issue.

“The important thing is discussions are now in context instead of (being held) in separate chat rooms,” Tan said. “This is really the next step in the evolution of the web.”

The group application could be used to hold tutorial sessions online or on a school’s intranet.

“In designing Third Voice, we aimed to revive the original spirit of the internet, namely that of open expression and the sharing of ideas,” Tan said.

With public postings, web shoppers can stick a note on a retailer’s site to complain about a price, financial pundits can add warnings to corporate earnings reports, and voters can leave their thoughts about politicians.

“Third Voice creates for the first time a system of checks and balances on the internet,” said Chris Shipley, editor of DemoLetter, a technology newsletter.

Of course, not everyone will be pleased about giving web surfers such power, and some have even used the software to criticize Third Voice itself, leaving notes on its home page.

But the company maintains that users of its software are protected by the First Amendment.

Tan said Third Voice will not monitor postings and won’t restrict most postings, although it will investigate complaints and remove notes deemed inappropriate, including those left by spammers and con artists.

A click-through usage agreement warns that the software cannot be used for commercial purposes—such as a company leaving disparaging notes on a competitor’s web site.

Notes containing inappropriate language will also be removed as soon as the company is notified.

Development of Third Voice began in 1996, when Tan and two other colleagues were working as researchers at the Information Technology Institute in Singapore.

The company was officially founded in 1998 in Silicon Valley’s Redwood City and is backed by the venture firms Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Mayfield Fund, which collectively invested more than $5.5 million in the software developer.

To keep the software free, Third Voice has developed an advertiser-supported home page, or “distributed portal,” which takes users to the web sites with the most active Third Voice discussions taking place on the web.

Third Voice also is negotiating eCommerce partnerships with other internet firms.

Third Voice