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Surfer tracking limits applauded

A coalition of privacy advocates throws its weight behind a proposal to limit the use of browser "cookies."

A coalition of privacy advocates today threw its weight behind a proposal to limit the use of browser "cookies," which Web sites use to track surfers.

In the letter, ten groups applaud a proposal before the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to help users control cookies. The proposal is being presented this week at an IETF meeting in Memphis, Tennessee, an influential coalition of technical experts who develop standards for the Internet.

Cookies collect information as a user travels around the Web and feeds the information back to a Web server. A Web site sends a cookie to the user's computer, where it serves as a digital tag that notifies the site each time the user enters. The information can be used, for example, to automatically supply a password for a subscription-only site or to collect information about an online shopper's preferences so that electronic marketers can target their offerings to that individual.

The proposal would alter the protocol behind cookies. Browsers that comply to the specification would let users create a profile of which kinds of cookies they want to let track their movements and which ones they want to block altogether

Today's action highlights the ongoing debate between those pushing electronic commerce and privacy groups who say that technologies like cookies could violate consumers' privacy rights.

Among the groups that signed the letter to IETF in support of the proposal are the Center for Media Education, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, the Consumer Project on Technology , the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

"We believe that 'transparency'--the ability of users to see and exercise control over the disclosure of personally identifiable information--is a critical guideline for the development of sensible privacy practices on the Internet. The alternative would be the surreptitious collection of data without the ability to exercise any control," the letter states.

Copies of the letter were sent to the heads of Microsoft and Netscape Communications, as well as Christine Varney of the Federal Trade Commission, and Ira Magaziner, senior advisor to President Clinton on policy.

Microsoft and Netscape browsers already give users an option to get a warning when they are about to download a cookie and asks them if they want to accept it. But privacy advocates say this is not enough.

Instead, they want browser manufacturers to set the defaults on their products to automatically block cookies. If consumers want a cookie, they can turn off the block, they say.

"We want the defaults set in such a way that no one can send you a cookie without you knowing it," Marc Rotenberg, director of EPIC, said today. "We're against cookies that are secretive or a third-party use of cookies. If you agree to let one Web site use cookies in your interaction, we don't want other Web sites scarfing those cookies off of your system."

But those in online advertising say cookies equal ad dollars well spent and that they are going to fight the proposal. If accepted by the IETF, the proposal would be accepted as if it were a law, according to opponents.

"The IETF is getting to be more influential because it's a nonprofit organization with thousands of members. If it proposes something, it will likely become a standard. Basically, it's regulation," said Tob Seven of the Internet Advertising Association, which has gained 700 members since it was founded last October.

"This is going to be a further restriction. Cookies are a very viable resource for advertisers and commerce Web sites. It allows the Web site to identify frequent visitors. It could be your name, password, something unique about your buying habits," Seven said

David Yoder, media director for Anderson & Lembke, agrees that the default-setting proposal would make cookies almost useless. His agency buys all online advertising for Microsoft, which he said benefits from cookies.

"It is an advantage of our clients and the users. This proposal would hurt the sites because they won't be able to sell their ad space at a higher cost-per-thousand. Cookies are only as good as how broadly they can be spread," he added.

Still, those backing the proposal say protecting privacy is more important than advertisers making a buck.

"We have to keep online marketers out of the 'cookie jar.' Such `Orwellian' practices to stealthily track every move made online and share that information with other companies should be prohibited," said Jeff Chester, director of the Center for Media Education in a statement.