A LETTER FROM THE EDITOR: EYEBALLS FOR SALE

By (RvB) Published on .

Bill Gross wants to help you the way Chris Whittle helped your kids. Whittle Communications gives schools free TVs and satellite dishes. The catch: schools are obligated to subject pupils to daily newscasts that are interspersed with commercials sold by Whittle. Now Bill Gross, the founder of Pasadena-based Free-PC, is expanding the principle to your desktop. A 333 Mhz Compaq Presario could be yours for the asking, provided you fork over a slew of personal data: how much money you make, which magazines you read, your marital status, your family's birthdays, your street address, right down to your shopping preferences. Rejoice when the PC arrives, and marvel at the perfectly tailored ads snaking along the bottom and right side of the screen. You don't even have to be online. You might be doing your taxes on the computer, or your kids could be hot on Carmen Sandiego's trail -- and there it is, permanently, uneradicable, a parade of flashing come-ons begging for your attention and your dollar.

Obviously, the Free-PC deal is not without attraction, although it's devoid of sublety. At least Whittle's Channel One offers the fig leaf of intellectual growth: the newscasts that classes watch collectively are said to deepen kids' knowledge of the world. The Free-PC scenario simply addresses one of two states of mind: greed or despair. If you can afford a thousand-dollar PC without batting an eye, and you still sign up for this Faustian bargain, I hope that your thrift turns out to be worth every byte of private information you freely surrendered. What if you haven't the income for a personal computer, and Gross' offer finally lets you be part of the PC revolution? The one million-plus requests for a gratis computer outstripped the initial supply of 10,000 machines a hundred times over. I doubt that any of those free Compaqs are going to turn up in Harlem or rural Arkansas. That's just not where advertisers expect to find their favorite demographic.

Hey, really want something for nothing? Given the lingering anarchistic spirit of the Internet, I predict that hackers will soon distribute free code that lops the advertising off of any Free-PC machine, restoring full screens to their users. Or ad-weary owners could simply do a Windows re-install from a friend's

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