Laudator: Sönke Hilbrans

The BigBrotherAward 2011 in the category “Consumer Protection” goes to

Verlag für Wissen und Innovation

Inhaber: Herr Horst Müller, Starnberg,
(Publishing House for Knowledge and Innovation, proprietor: Mr Horst Müller, Starnberg),

for skimming pupils’ and parents’ address data in exchange for book coupons.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

as you all know, personal data of pupils are protected by law in Germany. And with good reason: A school is not a commercial fairground, and parents should be able to entrust their children to the school’s care without losing control over their and their children’s personal data. On the other hand, names and addresses of pupils and their parents are quite attractive to providers of advertising and financial services, for which advertising company wouldn’t like to pick up tomorrow’s customers right at the school gate? Even better when the parents’ data are part of the package … Well, let’s hope many corporations can resist such a temptation.

But not our winner, Starnberg-based publisher Verlag für Wissen und Innovation, which is employing an utterly unpleasant data skimming scheme: they send out coupons to schools for books from publishers renowned for their childrens’ and youth literature, kindly asking for the coupons to be distributed in class. As an added benefit, the school receives a book gift and participates in a prize draw. Cooperating teachers get a free book as well. There is just one tiny catch for the pupils and their parents: to be eligible for a gift, they must hand over the name and address of the pupil and at least of one parent to the generous donor.

There’s nothing secret happening so far, not even the announcement of a telephone call for an interview on “learning – health – future” is hidden in the small print. What parents can’t recognize though: the generous publisher doesn’t produce its own books at all, but something it does do is to cooperate with financial investment advisers as well as with a manufacturer of vitamin pills. Here they are again, the three tribulations of young parents: learning performance, health and (financial) future. As they would put it at Amazon: “Customers who buy school books also buy insurance policies and health care products”.

Legal? Illegal? Either way: whoever attracts parents of pupils with books to get hold of the data of these little future consumers and their parents has earned a BigBrotherAward in the category “Consumer Protection”.

So why do we award a first prize today for a business practice known millionfold on the Internet as a “honeypot”? We decided on a first prize because there is a need for a reminder that in 2005, the Big Brother Award in the “Regional” category was not awarded for fun. Back then, laureates were the primary school Bünde-Ennigloh together with two local banks, the Volksbank (cooperative bank) and Sparkasse (savings bank) in Herford: for the banks soliciting and receiving pupils’ data from the school. And back then, just as today, book gifts to teachers and parents were the bait of choice.

It didn’t come to the jury’s attention at the time that institutions such as the school supervisory authority took up the affair. We don’t enjoy repeating ourselves, and if we do, it is only for the sake of educational impact. So watch out, all you supervisory authorities, headmasters, pupil representations and parents: beware of our 2011 laureate and of all those following suit. And you’d better start watching out tomorrow.

Congratulations to Mr Horst Müller and his Publishing House for Knowledge and Innovation in Starnberg!