Microsoft, Others Roll Out Tools to Guard Online Privacy

Microsoft Corp. and other companies last week unveiled software tools based on an Internet privacy specification proposed by a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) working group. Those tools, the companies said, should help protect the privacy of online consumers.

Microsoft said support for the Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P) specification - which offers Web sites a way to communicate their privacy policies in a standard, machine-readable format - will be included with the next major version of its Windows operating system, code-named Whistler, which is due out next year.

A number of smaller software vendors made similar announcements at an event in New York last week, and companies such as America Online Inc., AT&T Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM and Procter & Gamble Co. said all or parts of their corporate Web sites are being made P3P-compliant.

But the W3C's efforts to protect online privacy, which come as Congress is considering whether to enact privacy legislation or allow firms to regulate themselves, have drawn criticism from others who aren't sure the P3P specification can adequately protect people.

In testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee last week, Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, said the privacy research group doesn't think P3P will do enough to promote online privacy.

The W3C's proposed standard "builds on the very weak 'notice-and-choice' approach that is increasingly asking consumers to trade in their privacy for the benefits of electronic commerce," Rotenberg said.

Horst Joepen, CEO of AG, a German developer of privacy software backed by electronics giant Siemens AG, also criticized the P3P proposal in a telephone interview. People still would run the risk of giving out sensitive personal information such as their names and birth dates, he said.

Piece of the Puzzle

But Lorrie Cranor, chairwoman of the P3P working group and a senior technical staff member at AT&T Labs Research in Florham Park, N.J., said P3P is meant to be only one part of the online privacy puzzle. "Other pieces, like legislation (that would address enforcement issues), are also needed," she said.

The W3C, an international industry group with more than 420 members, said it expects to finalize the P3P specification later this year.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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