A major internet filtering company will stop collecting and selling the web habits of millions of schoolchildren who use its product after privacy groups howled and the Defense Department had second thoughts, the company disclosed Feb. 22.

N2H2 Inc., whose “Bess” internet filtering solution is used by a reported 14 million students in the United States and recently was voted as the best internet filter available by eSchool News readers, said it has stopped selling its “Class Clicks” list that reports the web sites students visit on the internet and how much time they spend at each one.

After N2H2 announced its deal with marketing research firm Roper Starch Worldwide last September, privacy groups called the filtering company a “corporate predator” and were incensed over reports the information would be sold to the Defense Department for recruiting.

“It is not the purpose of the public schools to abet corporations that spy on the web browsing of schoolchildren,” said Gary Ruskin of Commercial Alert, a Washington-based group targeting commercialism in schools.

The Bess filter is used by 40 percent of the schools that use internet filters to screen out objectionable web sites. N2H2 spokesman Allen Goldblatt said his company and Roper Starch “mutually decided” to drop the relationship.

“From our end, this was a distraction for us,” Goldblatt said. “What we do is work on filtering.”

Goldblatt said that no personally identifiable data about kids were ever collected or sold. Federal law prohibits collection or sale of a child’s personal information without parental permission.

“Our business is protecting kids. We never would, never have, and never will jeopardize anyone’s privacy,” Goldblatt said. “I think any time you have a great public debate about privacy issues …, this is a good thing.”

The company will stop providing all reports, Goldblatt said.

After writing to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to stop the deal, Ruskin received a letter from the department saying that, while learning how kids used military web sites would be “appealing,” the department had second thoughts.

“Prior to the news articles that were recently published, we believed that Class Clicks was a commonly used market research service,” read the February letter from W.S. Sellman, the Pentagon’s director of accession policy.

“Upon further investigation, we realized that it is a new concept,” the letter continued. “At this point, we are delaying our decision about participating in the Class Clicks project, indefinitely.”

Ruskin called the announcement a victory, saying many school administrators did not know about the collection of data and objected to its use.

“It’s good that N2H2 is going to stop its schoolroom snooping,” Ruskin said.

For its part, N2H2 says it has been talking about—and distributing—this information for more than a year, including presentations at educational technology conferences and monthly dispatches of data to the education press for dissemination to educators.

The company said it began collecting the information to help educators use the internet more effectively during instruction. N2H2 subsequently explored ways to share and profit from the information—hence its business venture with Roper Starch.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) began investigating the Class Clicks list in January, asking the Defense Department and individual states for their records on the deal.

EPIC legal counsel Chris Hoofnagle said he was skeptical about N2H2’s commitment to privacy.

“EPIC believes that children should not be profiled while using the internet,” Hoofnagle said. “It’s not clear from what I know now that [such profiling] will end.”

A law passed during the closing moments of last year’s Congress requires libraries and schools to install internet filters, or lose federal funds earmarked for technology.

The law, called the Children’s Internet Protection Act, takes effect in late April, but the American Civil Liberties Union and American Library Association are challenging it in court.

Despite N2H2’s decision to stop selling its web-use data, privacy advocates worry there are no rules requiring internet filtering companies to disclose their business practices fully, especially since CIPA would require schools to use their products.

“We want to see broader protections for children,” Hoofnagle said. “There’s not adequate assurance that [information collected by filtering companies] will remain anonymous.”

Links:

N2H2 Inc.
http://www.n2h2.com

Roper Starch
http://www.roper.com

Commercial Alert
http://www.essential.org/alert

Electronic Privacy Information Center
http://www.epic.org