The Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P), which will be supported by Microsoft and Netscape browsers, will let consumers approve or block the transfer of personal information to Web sites based on predefined settings. For example, if surfers don't want to give their names and addresses to sites that sell the information to third parties, they can specify that in their settings, which will be automatically cross-checked with the policies of P3P-enabled sites.
Facing the possibility of stricter laws and pressure from the White House to bolster online privacy through technology and voluntary guidelines, many Net companies have steadfastly supported the recognition of P3P. But the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which has been hammering out the P3P standard for more than two years, worried that a potential patent dispute was a major obstacle to the wide deployment of P3P.
The W3C claimed that companies would be deterred from supporting P3P if they were forced to pay a licensing fee to a firm called Intermind Corporation, which has patented "push" technology that lets online computers automatically send information to Net users. The standards body released a legal analysis today, however, stating that P3P doesn't violate Intermind's patent.
"We found that the specifications of the patent don't match how P3P works," said Danny Weitzner, an attorney who also leads the section of the W3C that is responsible for P3P development. "So if Intermind ever brought anyone to court [over P3P], the likelihood would be that Intermind would lose.
"We felt that this was a stumbling block for the deployment of P3P, but shortly we will have a last-call draft of the specification, and we expect people to start implementing and testing it over the next six months," he added.
Intermind, which has staunchly defended its patents in the past, said today that it made a decision a few months ago to set up a free license for P3P supporters. Since the conflict began with the W3C early this year, Intermind also has shifted its business; it will now focus on developing online privacy protection tools.
"On the legal side it's a very complex situation, so it's premature to comment on [the W3C's] stance today," said Drummond Reed, vice president of product development for Intermind.
"Our first product will go to market in a couple of months," he added. "The goal of our patents is to ensure the privacy of every Internet user. Intermind's patents go way beyond P3P, but we want P3P to go forward unhindered in the marketplace."
Privacy advocates have given P3P mixed reviews, stating that the infrastructure could be used to extract more sensitive information from Net users. But some groups were pleased to see P3P getting pushed forward.
"In order to combat the tide of technologies that take away people's choices and privacy, we need technology that can give consumers more choices over the use of their information," said Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst for the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).
"CDT believes there needs to be a baseline privacy law, that companies need to be more responsible, and that there needs to be technologies," he added. "Missing one of those pieces, you don't have the complete answer."