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Browser users to watch cookies

Netscape will let surfers protect their privacy by completely blocking some kinds of cookies, and Microsoft is following suit.

Netscape Communications' (NSCP) Navigator 4.0 will let surfers protect their privacy by completely blocking some kinds of cookies, those little pieces of code that advertisers love and privacy lovers hate.

Navigator will incorporate at least part of a newly drafted standard written by Netscape's Lou Montulli and Bell Labs researcher David Kristol intended to give the surfer more control over cookies, the digital equivalent of electronic tags used to track animals in the wild.

Microsoft also is working with Kristol and plans on supporting the draft plan, according to Thomas Reardon, program manager at Microsoft. "In fact, just a few weeks ago Kristol agreed to changes to the draft to make it compatible with legacy versions of [Internet Explorer]," he wrote in an email.

Kristol and Montulli wrote a draft proposal for the specification and submitted it to the Internet Engineering Task Force. Netscape has already committed to writing to the standard for Navigator 4.0.

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.

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 stop at the border, as it were.

"We want to empower users of the Web," Kristol stated. "We believe that we can do this by encouraging browser vendors to make an interface available to users so that they know what's going on at all times."

Navigator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer both support the use of cookies, which have made the technology a de facto standard on the Web.

While both browsers can provide an alert when a user is about to download a cookie, many privacy experts and Netizens are concerned about the loss of privacy that comes with their widespread use. Advertisers, on the other hand, love cookies. It's as if every TV watcher were part of the Nielsen rating system.

Currently, the two most widely used browsers, Navigator and Explorer, provide an option that allow them to accept or refuse individual cookies. But so many sites routinely use cookies that the frequent warnings can be annoying. Privacy experts say most users still don't know how often their browsers are being checked out by cookies.

Several companies have developed programs that will automatically erase cookies after each session, but that takes at least one additional step if users are to consistently protect their privacy.

Instead, Kristol is proposing that browsers incorporate the ability to let users create a profile of which kinds of cookies they will accept. Netscape will incorporate part of the specification, which would allow users to control "unverifiable transactions" from Web sites, according to Bell Labs.

"What it would do is make it possible to turn off sessions in a much more flexible fashion," said Chris Pfaff, a Bell spokesman. "Any unverified transactions would not be allowed."