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Free PCs, but only for the right people.

Free-PC, a US firm offering consumers free PCs in return for advertising on their screens, has clocked up over 500,000 applicants to its offer in its first fortnight. The PCs, which are made by Compaq, are not intended for business users, but they are as powerful as corporate machines. Free-PC’s offer highlights the growing understanding of how much personal information is worth to companies searching for customers in elusive demographic groups. Only applicants from the demographic groups sought by advertisers will get a PC. One obstacle to a similar scheme in the UK is our stringent data protection law. In the US, the detailed demographic information gathered by Free-PC can be sold to other firms almost without restraint. In the UK, that would be illegal. However, PC manufacturer Acer is considering supplying basic PCs, capable only of Internet access, free to subscribers of partner Internet service providers, although it refused give a timescale for the plan. The free PC idea has some distinguished supporters. IT guru Nicholas Negroponte predicted years ago that PCs would become free, with companies selling advertising and add-on services. On the other hand, his Internet startup, Digicash, has just filed for Chapter 11 protection from creditors.

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