The Hightower Lowdown

ZapMe!'s snooping on kids, downsizing hurts the boss too, and Fleet Bank's fleeting sympathies

ZapMe!'s Schoolyard Snooping

If someone were hanging around the schoolyard gathering information on your children, wouldn't you want to do something about it, like tell the creep to scram?

Well, someone has virtually crept into the schoolyard and is gathering information via computer. The "somebody" is the ZapMe! Corporation, an Internet provider backed by such giants as Microsoft and Dell Computer. The Wall Street Journal reports that ZapMe! already has contracts with 6,000 schools and, on the surface, the contracts look great: The company provides computers, Internet access, maintenance, and support services free of charge.

What does the company get? An agreement that their computers will be in use by the students at least four hours a day. This is where ZapMe!'s public service turns self-serving, for the computer constantly flashes ads at the bottom of the screen. The company is selling our kids' eyeballs and minds to advertisers.

With the help of the schools, ZapMe! and its advertisers collect the names, ages, genders, addresses, and other personal information about the students. These profiles are compiled without informing parents or gaining their consent, and there's no control over how the information is used and to whom it can be sold. Not only is this insidious Internet intrusion into our schools another step toward commercialization of the classrooms, but it's also an outrageous invasion of our children's privacy.

A coalition ranging from Ralph Nader to Phyllis Schlafly is calling on states to zap ZapMe!'s schoolyard snooping. Contact the coalition at 202/296-2787.

The Sorrows Behind Corporate Pink Slips

Here's a sorrow-filled story from The New York Times about the personal side of downsizing. It's about the emotional trauma suffered by those who get caught up in the blizzard of pink slips in today's harsh corporate climate. Only, the Times story is not about the people getting pink slips -- but about the sad plight of bosses who hand them out.

Need a hankie?

The big bosses, the CEOs who mandate mass firings, never soil their soft hands with actually handing out termination notices. This is done by line bosses, junior executives just a few years out of college. They're products of the boom-boom good times, and it never occurred to them that there were any dark clouds in the corporate sky. Having to punt a bunch of geezers in their 40s and 50s has like, you know, totally freaked out some of them.

These young punters are getting the personal counseling and help they need so they can do the dirty work of corporate America. These bosses are being schooled in how to fire someone, taking corporate courses that include simulated firings, that engage them in role playing, and that teach them politically correct downsizing-speak. Among the tips for these beginning downsizers are "never fire on a Friday" (because the fired will stew all weekend and sue the company on Monday); "Keep the termination exercise to less than 10 minutes" (after all, this is a firing, not a happy hour); and "let the fired employee keep his e-mail address" for a while (this will make you seem generous).

The Times happily informs us that the twentysomethings are quickly able to get over their trauma and get with the downsizing program. As one of them says: "At the end of the day it's a business, and you have to make hard business decisions." Atta boy -- that's the corporate attitude!

The Fleeting Friendliness of Fleet Bank

I got the nicest letter from Patrick. He works for Fleet, the giant credit card issuer that has my little Visa account, and he sent a personal letter just to remind me of "some of the outstanding benefits that you're entitled to with your Fleet credit card."

Patrick said, "Please see the enclosed cardholder agreement for important information about your account. ... Keeping you informed is important to us," he assured me, before signing off, "Sincerely, Patrick." What a friendly guy!

I tried to read his enclosed "agreement," an eight-column brochure containing 31 points, 17 sub-points, and eight sub-sub-points -- written in micro-type so teeny that you could get a migraine just looking at it. It did not seem to be in English and it did not have one bit of Patrick's friendly tone. In point 10, which supposedly explains how Fleet calculates the rate of interest I pay, this sentence came screaming at me like some beancounting banshee from hell: "Under the variable rate plans described in subparagraphs (a), (b) and (c) above, the highest LIBOR as published in The Wall Street Journal on any day during the 180-day period including and immediately preceding the third Wednesday of the month preceding the calendar month in which the billing cycle closes, plus a .60% add-on to LIBOR, will be used to determine the rates for that billing cycle."

Patrick wasn't around to interpret, but I think this gibberish is Fleet's way of saying: "Up yours, customer, we're gonna sock you with usurious interest rates, send you friendly mailings chock-full of nonsense -- and laugh at you all the way to the bank."

These so-called "agreements" give a new meaning to the term "bank robbery." When a company won't explain itself to you in plain English, you can bet you're getting the shaft.

Jim Hightower's latest book, If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates, is now available in a fully revised and updated paperback edition.
For more information on Jim Hightower's work – and to subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown – visit You can hear his radio commentaries on KOOP Radio, 91.7FM, weekdays at 10:58am and 12:58pm.

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