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COMPUTING

Computer giveaway lures 500,000 people

February 15, 1999
Web posted at: 1:33 p.m. EST (1833 GMT)

by Douglas F. Gray

From...
InfoWorld

(IDG) -- A program designed to give free computers to the 10,000 people who most closely fit a certain demographic has drawn more than 500,000 people to apply at Free-PC.com.

The company, which began business on Monday, offers a computer and free Internet access in exchange for users agreeing to have continuously appearing advertisements on the PC desktop. The computers, slated for shipment in the second quarter of this year, will have 2GB of ads pre-loaded on the hard drive from companies including Walt Disney, ESPN, Earthlink Network, America Online, and Autobytel.com. The ads will update via the Internet.

The company isn't giving away just any old computers either: The 333MHz Compaq Presarios have 32MB of RAM, a 4GB hard drive, of which 2GB is accessible to the user, a 33.6Kbps modem, a CD-ROM drive, and a 3.5-inch floppy drive. The computers are also preloaded with Windows 98 and include a 15-inch monitor.

Of course, there is a catch. In order to be eligible for the free computers, applicants must answer questions about hobbies, the publications they subscribe to, and which electronic devices they own.

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Users who are accepted will receive the PC, which constantly shows ads in a 'frame' surrounding the working area of the screen. Ads will be displayed anytime the computer is turned on, regardless of whether the user is online or offline, with ad content determined by the information provided in the application.

And, according to a public-relations representative for Free-PC.com, users must also agree to use the online services for a minimum of 10 hours per month. Each user must agree to a two-year test period for the system, the representative said. If the user agrees to put up with the ads after that period, he or she will continue to receive free Internet access and e-mail.

One privacy advocate suggested that consumers think twice before lining up for a free PC with such strings attached.

"On the one hand, it is important that people have access to new technology, but at the same time this sets a dangerous precedent for people who have less income and can't usually afford it," said David Banisar, policy director for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, in Washington. "I would urge people to have great caution about this. We have seen other deals, such as free phone calls and free e-mail, which generally don't succeed because people are concerned about privacy."

In order to be sure that customers hear from advertisers relevant to their interests, Free-PC.com will be monitoring which sites users visit while online and which ads they click on.

"I'm not sure what they expect to get out of this," Banisar said. "If they expect to get out of it what people are doing on the Net, there are definitely more anonymous ways to do this."

Banisar said the situation with Free-PC.com "shows there is a real need for some legal protection on privacy in America." He also compared it to other instances, such as WebTV, which stores the bookmarks of its users on a remote system instead of locally. WebTV's method of storing personal information would be legal in less than half the 50 industrialized countries Banisar has recently surveyed, he said.

One more recent example of people willing to provide personal information in exchange for free stuff was the fiasco that resulted when Microsoft announced it would give away copies of the $799 Office 2000 software to consumers who filled out a survey about Office 97 usage habits. The number of respondents willing to take three- to four-hour survey was so great that Microsoft resorted to sending an automatic e-mail to would-be participants saying that the deal was no longer being offered.

Douglas F. Gray is based in the Boston office of the IDG News Service, an InfoWorld affiliate.

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