Microsoft Corp. announced new software to help consumers get rid of "cookies," the little crumbs of computer code that help Web sites keep track of visitors. The new software, if it catches on, could reshape the battle over consumer privacy.
"With this announcement, Microsoft has taken a very significant step to put control of personal information into the hands of consumers," said Bob Herbold, the company's chief operating officer.
Cookies, though poorly understood, are one of the most controversial aspects of online life. Designed to be distributed by the major Internet browsers, cookies were initially intended to help Web site owners personalize sites to better serve visitors, without necessarily identifying the user personally.
The new technology, which Microsoft will begin offering in preliminary or "beta" form by the end of August, will allow consumers to block some or all cookies automatically. After the user has downloaded the software, the first time a cookie is offered to the user's computer, a warning box will pop up on the screen that will ask whether the user wants to block that cookie -- and will offer the option of blocking all cookies, or just those coming from third parties. It also will warn consumers about any attempt to place "persistent" cookies -- which remain on the user's hard drive for a specified period of time -- on the user's machine. Also, Microsoft will add a series of help screens to its Internet Explorer (IE) program that will give detailed definitions and descriptions of cookies, including how and why they are used.
The new software also will put a "delete all cookies" button on a list of options for users. Netscape's Navigator Web browser has allowed users some control over cookies for more than a year, and many online privacy advocates have offered software to block cookies. But the Microsoft software, likely to be incorporated into future versions of the company's popular IE browser, takes privacy protection to a new level, advocates said.
Michigan Attorney General Jennifer M. Granholm applauded Microsoft's move, saying that while no single technical solution provides a panacea, "certainly tools like Microsoft's proposed IE 5.5 patch open a larger discussion about the best way to give consumers control over their own personal information. The bottom line is, the more confident consumers feel about their privacy online, the more confident they'll be about using the Net."
DoubleClick officials declined comment and referred questions to the Network Advertising Initiative, a group representing Internet advertisers.
"We're in favor of a multifaceted approach to address privacy, including technology solutions," said Jeff Connaughton, an NAI representative. But "one unintended consequence of this approach is that it could hurt small and medium-sized Web sites by cutting their advertising." He said Microsoft had assured his member companies it would work with them to address what he called the "shortcomings" in the new software.
Another computer industry representative said the new software, by allowing consumers to block all third-party cookies, could end up boosting the biggest Web sites, such as Microsoft's, which could collect information from consumers who don't object to cookies originating from a site they use frequently.
"It's a very selective boon to a small part of privacy and a real advantage to Microsoft," said Ed Black, president of the Computer Communications Industry Association.
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