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Online stalwarts beef up privacy initiatives

Trying to quell concern over online profiling, several major Internet players are stepping up efforts to give Net surfers more notice about their privacy online.

Trying to quell concern over online profiling, several major Internet players are stepping up efforts to give Net surfers more notice about their privacy online.

Microsoft said it will offer an Internet Explorer 5.5 update that gives people the option to manage cookies, which can track consumer preferences and whereabouts on the Web.

Also this week, Yahoo launched a new privacy center where visitors can get information on its privacy policy and practices. In addition, Net media services company Engage submitted an enhanced outline of its privacy standard--TrustLabels--to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), an international community concerned with the evolution and operation of the Internet.

The initiatives come at a time of increased public awareness about the tracking practices of many Web sites and third-party advertisers. Last month, for example, the White House came under fire by privacy advocates for using tracking tags on its anti-drug site The White House immediately ordered its drug policy office to stop using cookies and issued strict new rules regulating federal use of the technology, which can surreptitiously collect personal information.

In a related move, the House of Representatives last night approved an amendment directing the Treasury Department, Postal Service and other federal agencies to show how they collect personal information from visitors to their Internet sites.

"There's a general trend here to not keep cookies behind the curtains," said Jason Catlett, president of privacy group Junkbusters.

But this trend is merely a signal of what is to come.

"Privacy-enhancement technologies have been in development for some time," said Ari Schwartz, privacy policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "This is just the beginning of the first wave of real products.

"These are all partial answers, as long as we start including education, privacy-enhancing technologies and baseline legislation to do the enforcement that's necessary," he said.

The idea is to give people more control of cookies, long a hot-button issue between ad networks and privacy advocates, who say the technology erodes personal privacy by tracking online activities.

The Internet Explorer 5.5 update, available by the end of August, will let people specify which kind of cookies they will accept. Through a small pop-up window, people will see whether the cookie is from the current site, which may want to set the tag to arrange for personalized stock quotes, or is from a third-party ad network such as DoubleClick. The online visitor can also opt out of receiving any cookies at all.

Engage's proposal recommends that cookies come with a digitally signed label that represents the purpose of the tag, such as how the information it tracks will be used. People could specify through their browser which kind of label-specific cookies they want to accept.

Microsoft said Internet Explorer 5.5 may be used in conjunction with TrustLabels, which gives consumers the "choice of visiting only those sites that respect their personal privacy preferences, thus reducing the problem of invisible bad actors," said Daniel Jaye, chief technology officer for Engage.

Added Andrew Shen, policy analyst at the Electronic Privacy Information Center: "(This) illustrates that even the ad networks see a problem with third-party cookies."

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The development came as great news to many privacy advocates.

"This is the first time we're seeing Microsoft develop a privacy-enhancing technology where they are receiving consumer feedback--and that's a good sign for the future of privacy on the Internet," Schwartz said.

"Cookies were not built with privacy in mind," he said. "We need to have technologies that give users more control."

Yahoo's new, two-page-long policy is linked to areas on the site where visitors may be concerned about their personal information.

"Now you can find links in our privacy policy that explain our privacy practices for different products and services," said Anne Toth, privacy policy manager at Yahoo. The company included various examples of practices before the new, concise page. "This really enhances our mantra of notice and choice."

But no one solution is the total answer.

"We need to be working on self-regulation, baseline legislation and privacy-enhancing technology all at the same time," Schwartz said. "Anyone who says that one of those areas can solve the whole problem alone is not being realistic when looking at the global decentralized Internet."