New Web privacy developments

Online advertisers and marketers may soon have a harder time collecting data about customers, now that Microsoft has created technology that will allow users to reject third-party cookies.

Cookies are information bits that attach to the hard drives of site visitors and capture data about online behavior, allowing companies to personalize the sites according to user preferences. Existing software programs already allow users to reject cookies from the Websites they visit. But Seattle-based Microsoft’s update to its Internet Explorer (IE) Web browser enables users to reject cookies from the ads on Websites, not just from the Websites themselves.

Microsoft spokesperson Tonya Klause says the technology is in the beta-testing phase. “Users can go to the Microsoft site now and download the cookie management technology as a patch,” she says. “In the future, it will be available on later issues of Windows ME or Whistler, the next Windows version after ME.”

Among IE’s new functionalities:

– Consumer notification for cookies. The notification default will prompt consumers any time a third-party persistent cookie is being served. A default response enables users to accept the cookie.

– Cookie control. A “delete all cookies” icon on the primary Internet Options page lets users delete all cookies from all locations on a consumer’s hard drive.

– Help. New cookie management help topics have been added to provide information on the technology and address cookie-related questions.

But some privacy advocates see such technology as a proverbial bandage rather than a proper cure. “Consumers are concerned about two things: someone else having a profile of who they are online; and not having control over or access to that information,” says Dr. David Zimmerman, chief technology officer for YouPowered, a permission-based personalization firm in New York. He says he would rather be able to provide users with access to their online profiles than to offer cookie blocking options.

Other privacy developments In September, the Privacy Foundation, a Denver-based nonprofit group, presented a list of Web privacy guidelines at the Global Privacy summit in Washington. The guidelines, which have been submitted to advertisers and the Federal Trade Commission for review, propose that sites disclose their use of “Web bugs.”

The bugs, or clear GIFs, are tiny images embedded in a Web page or an HTML-based e-mail that transmit data to a remote computer when a page is viewed. Like cookies, Web bugs collect information on pages that consumers are viewing online. Among the Privacy Foundation’s guidelines:

– Websites that use Web bugs must display a clearly visible icon stating as much on the page.

– The Web bug should be linked to a page disclosing what data are collected, how they are used, and which companies receive the data.

– Website visitors must be able to opt out of data collection by Web bugs.

– Web bugs should not be used to collect sensitive information related to children, medical issues, finances, employment, or sex.

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