If you've surfed the Internet, you've likely seen the offers for free E-mail, free stock quotes, and free porn.
Well, a California firm is doing them all one better: free computers. Free-PC Inc. plans to give away 10,000 Compaq Presario Internet PCs loaded with free Net access and E-mail to Americans who match the right demographic profile, said Denise Walpole, a company spokesperson.
The catch? Owners will become a captive audience for advertisers whose electronic pitches will sit prominently - and immovably - on their computer screens.
The company could eventually give away as many as a million computers. (For the moment, the offer isn't being extended to Canadians.)
Contestants register at the company's Web site (www.free-pc.com) by filling out a questionnaire that asks for personal information such as age, income and family status along with information about tastes and interests.
Free-PC will choose recipients based on the target audience they want to reach on behalf of their yet-to-be- announced advertisers.
"The point is to make sure the ads are interesting to those people and that they're a worthwhile target for the advertisers", said Walpole. "They're paying for that exposure."
Analysts say the bold move is sure to be followed by others looking to sell their online services by giving away the hardware, much like the way cable and phone companies do with cellular and cable-TV equipment.
"This is a very, very novel approach", said Ted Boyd, chair of the Toronto-based Internet Advertising Bureau. "Internet penetration rates have hit a ceiling so people are trying to figure out different ways to push it upward."
In a statement, Free-PC said it "promises never to sell or give away consumer data to any third party".
But such assurances aren't always binding. Last month, a high profile computer security hole on the Air Miles Web site (www.airmiles.ca) exposed the names, card numbers, E-mail addresses, and home and business addresses of 30,000 subscribers to the popular loyalty program.
"There's always an element of trust", said David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada, a non-profit group advocating online privacy. "You have to trust that they intend to do what they say and that they are technically proficient enough to do it."
"I'd get a bad vibe about an advertiser willing to pay more than $1,000 to make this connection to me."
"They obviously plan to get more out of me than the value of the computer."