Microsoft backs P3P Net privacy standard

The chief privacy officer at Microsoft Corp. said last week that the company plans to release free software tools that could spur the adoption of Internet privacy standards.

Richard Purcell, Microsoft's director of corporate privacy, said the company would deliver tools this fall based on the Platform for Privacy Preferences Project (P3P). He made the announcement at the Computers, Freedom & Privacy Conference, which took place last week in Toronto.

P3P is being developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an Internet standards body that plans to finalize the platform this summer. Microsoft's P3P tools would convert a company's privacy statements into a machine-readable format. This way, users would be warned if a site they are visiting gathers more personal information than they are willing divulge or if a site distributes data to outside parties.

To create these news tools, Microsoft will update its Privacy Wizard to generate a P3P-compliant XML object that will be able to interpret and describe a Web site's privacy statement. The company will also offer a P3P-based add-on to its Internet Explorer browser and the competing Netscape Communications Corp. browser.

Using the P3P-based browser add-on, consumers will be able to express their personal privacy preferences and enable their browsers to compare any P3P-compliant privacy statement to those preferences. "This will provide consumers with an immediate understanding of some of the key characteristics of a Web site's privacy statement and aid in their determining the level of interaction they want to have with a particular site," said Microsoft spokesperson Melissa Covelli.

The P3P specification has potential to reassure nervous online consumers who find Web site privacy statements difficult to locate and understand. But critics argue that Web sites may not have sufficient incentives to use P3P and its adoption may be agonizingly slow.

Lorrie Cranor, chair of the P3P specification working group of the W3C, notes that this argument reflects a chicken-and-egg problem. She says Web sites will not have a reason to use P3P until there are tools that can read P3P policies. On the other hand, tool developers are reluctant to create this software until they know that sites will post P3P policies. According to Cranor, Microsoft's announcement will encourage Web sites to post P3P policies and prompt other companies to build P3P tools.

"Previous drafts of the P3P specification were much more difficult to implement," said Cranor. "But recent changes have been designed to lower the bar to implementation and allow sites to get up and running quickly."

Cranor said that those who think P3P may be useful but are concerned about its adoption should join the W3C in working toward its rapid deployment.

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