After two years of rapid growth, ZapMe!, a company that provides new computers to schools in return for the ability to show some advertisements to online users, is now being harshly criticized by consumer and media groups for pushing advertising onto children.

The issues raised are similar to charges leveled a few years ago at the Whittle Education empire when it introduced television into classrooms and showed advertisements between educational programming, but they are exacerbated by the greater information-gathering capabilities of online communications.

Schools that sign contracts with ZapMe! receive five to 15 computers, free high-speed internet connections, and technical support. In return, they agree to have the computers used for at least four hours each day and permit ads to be flashed in a corner of the screens.

While this is similar to many other school-based advertising programs that have emerged in the past decade, ZapMe! has added a technology twist. Each student is assigned an electronic identification, and schools provide ZapMe! with their ages and gender. In other words, ZapMe! can start gathering information on the types of advertisements that children respond to.

The company—and the 6,000 schools that have signed up with the program in the past two years—downplay privacy concerns by noting that student names, addresses, and phone numbers are not shared with ZapMe!. Only the most broad demographic information is available to ZapMe! and its advertisers, says the company’s chief executive.

However, Commercial Alert, a consumer group in Washington, D.C., says that even this information cannot be shared without parental consent. The group has asked computer manufacturers to stop supplying computers to ZapMe!, and it has called on state legislators and the U.S. Congress to require that companies get parental consent before using the computers to obtain any personal information about students. California passed this type of a law in 1999, and Congress is apparently poised to consider legislation in its session this spring.

Indeed, concerns over student privacy and aggressive salesmanship in schools caused the Chapel Hill-Carrboro (North Carolina) school district to reject a contract with ZapMe! last year. The district cited as particularly objectionable a link on the screen to an online shopping mall.