Internet Explorer 6.0 to Include Privacy Controls

But privacy advocates claim standards fail to give Internet users enough say

As proposed online privacy standards head toward adoption this year, Microsoft Corp. last week announced details on how its upcoming Internet Explorer 6.0 Web browser will incorporate the new privacy controls.

The latest version of the browser is based on specifications being finalized by the Platform for Privacy Preferences Project, known as P3P.

The new specifications aim to protect online privacy by giving Web surfers more control over the personally identifiable information that's collected about them online.

With Internet Explorer 6.0, which will be released in the second half of this year, users will be able to visit P3P-enabled Web sites and control the personally identifiable information that's collected about them that might be shared with third parties.

The information is stored in cookies, which are small files stored on users' hard drives that are used to log such data as sites that are visited and shopping preferences.

The browser's new privacy controls include a sliding bar that allows users to select one of five privacy settings ranging from a low setting that allows all cookies to be accepted to a high setting that rejects all cookies, a Microsoft spokesman said. The default position is the medium setting, which will reject cookies automatically if the site doesn't abide by the P3P standards.

But critics said they're not convinced that the new tools will better protect Internet users. Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp., a privacy watchdog group in Green Brook, N.J., said such Web-based controls aren't enough because Web users often don't know what to do with them.

"Consumers need enforceable rights" to allow them to review the personal information companies collect about them, Catlett said. Also, he said companies should be required by law to obtain permission to share personal information with third parties.

"Obviously, P3P has been an attempt to distract Congress from giving people real privacy rights" by causing lawmakers to avoid the matter in favor of technological controls, Catlett said.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, said P3P continues to cause concern because it places the burden for maintaining privacy on Internet users and not on the companies that want to collect personal information.

"I think people need better legal and technical control over the use of their data," Rotenberg said.

Gathering Momentum

Lorrie Cranor, chairwoman of the World Wide Web Consortium working group that has been creating the P3P standards, said Microsoft is one of many organizations that has been incorporating the new tools into its Web sites and products.

Other P3P backers include AT&T Corp., Dulles, Va.-based America Online Inc. and the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, Cranor said. Their Web sites are being readied for when P3P controls are built into browsers and used by the masses, she said.

"It's a stable specification, and it's not likely to have any major changes at this point," Cranor said. The proposal is presently in a "candidate recommendation" status, meaning that it's finished but awaiting any last-minute adjustments, she added.

Last April, Microsoft announced that it was backing the P3P standard. Two months later, the company unveiled software tools to help make the P3P implementation possible.

In the meantime, at Netscape Communications Corp., development is continuing with a third-party vendor on P3P implementation in the company's Communicator browser suite, said spokeswoman Catherine Corre. No time line has been set for inclusion of the P3P tools for users, she said.

It's still early for the sites themselves as well.

At clothing retailer Lands' End Inc. in Dodgeville, Wis., no decisions have been made yet about the company's direction on P3P, said Andrea Stephenson, a Lands' End spokeswoman.

"We would certainly look at and support anything that would make our customers feel more secure," Stephenson said. Lands' End hasn't and won't sell information gathered online to any third parties, she said.

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