FRAMINGHAM (07/21/2000) - Microsoft Corp. this week announced plans to test new features in its Internet Explorer browser that are supposed to give users more control over cookies that can track their online surfing activities.
Privacy advocates called the action a good first step, though several online vendors said the developments will have few effects on their Web sites.
Microsoft said it's releasing the "privacy-enhancing" features to about 2,000 users for beta testing with the Windows version of Internet Explorer 5.5, which was made available for downloading two weeks ago. Within four weeks, the company hopes to release a public beta version.
A key element among the changes is a "delete all cookies" button to more easily get rid of cookies stored on a user's hard drive, as well as a pop-up box that appears when a third-party cookie arrives from an outside Web advertiser that contracts with a site.
Cookies are small pieces of information that a Web site can automatically place on a hard drive. The site can then use the cookie to collect data such as the visitor's ZIP code or a history of what a customer visits on the site. That information can be used for marketing or to personalize the person's next visit. Identifying information such as a visitor's name can also be connected to the other data.
For clothing retailer Lands' End Inc. in Dodgeville, Wis., the new controls may not have a major impact because the firm uses nonidentifying cookies only to help customers place personalized clothing orders, not to track their online movements, said spokeswoman Beverly Holmes. "The ways we're using them, we believe, are the ways most customers want us to use them," she said.
Similar policies are in use at online and television shopping channel QVC Inc. in West Chester, Pa., according to Eric Gregg, QVC's director of interactive systems. QVC uses only randomly generated, temporary cookies when an online customer opens a shopping basket to make purchases, and the cookie is deleted when the purchase is made or aborted.
Mark Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, said that although the new controls offer better protections, the existence of cookies still leaves users vulnerable because no one really knows how deep cookies go to get information. "I think a lot of the problems with cookie management remain," he said.