As proposed online privacy standards head toward adoption this year, Microsoft today announced details on how its upcoming Internet Explorer (IE) 6.0 Web browser will incorporate the new privacy controls.
The latest version of the browser is based on specifications being finalized by the Platform for Privacy Preferences Project, known as P3P. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an Internet standards body, is conducting the project. The new specifications aim to protect online privacy by giving Web surfers more control over the personally identifiable information that's collected about them as they peruse the Internet.
"This will be a huge step for consumers and Web sites," said Michael Wallent, IE product unit manager at Microsoft. "We think this can help people make better choices" online as they use Web sites.
Using IE 6.0, which will be released in the second half of this year, users will be able to visit P3P-enabled Web sites and control the personally identifiable information that's collected about them and that might be shared with third-party advertisers. The information is stored in "cookies," which are small files stored on users' hard drives that are used to log data about sites that are visited, shopping preferences and other data.
Incorporated into the browser's new privacy controls is a sliding bar that allows users to select one of five privacy settings, ranging from a low setting that allows all cookies to be accepted, to a high setting that rejects all cookies, Wallent said. The default position is the medium setting, which will reject cookies automatically if the site doesn't abide by the P3P standards.
Critics, however, remain unconvinced that the new tools will better protect Internet users.
Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters, a privacy watchdog group, said that such Web-based controls aren't enough because Web users often don't know what to do with them.
"Consumers need enforceable rights" to allow them to review personal information that companies collect about them, Catlett said. Also, he said, companies should be required by law to obtain permission to share personal information with third parties.
"Obviously, P3P has been an attempt to distract Congress from giving people real privacy rights," by causing lawmakers to avoid the matter in favor of technological controls, he said.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, said that P3P continues to cause concern because it places the burden for maintaining privacy on Internet users and not on the companies that want to collect personal information.
"I think people need better legal and technical control over the use of their data," Rotenberg said.
Lorrie Cranor, chairwoman of the W3C working group that has been creating the P3P standards, said that Microsoft is one of many organizations that have been incorporating the new tools into their Web sites and products. Others include AT&T and AOL, she said. The sites are being readied for when P3P controls are built into Web browsers and used by the masses, she said.
"It's a stable specification and it's not likely to have any major changes at this point," she said. The proposal is presently in a "candidate recommendation" status, meaning that it's finished but awaiting any last-minute corrections or adjustments, she said.
Last April, Microsoft announced that it was backing the P3P standard. Two months later, the company unveiled software tools to help make possible the implementation of the P3P proposal.