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 last week. Within four weeks, the company hopes to release a public beta version for general use that will incorporate the new capabilities.
Key to the changes are easier ways for users to delete cookies that are stored on their computer hard drives, as well as more selective alerts to notify users that a cookie has arrived from Web sites they have visited. Microsoft said it's trying to tighten the cookie controls in reaction to consumer feedback about privacy and security concerns.
Cookies are small pieces of information that can be automatically placed on computer hard drives by a Web site. The cookies are used by the site to collect data about the visitors, from ZIP code information to the type of computer processor being used and other information.
The cookie-collected data can then be used by the Web site's operator to target future online advertisements at the user. Cookies can also be placed by third-party advertisers to help them better target future ads based on the online travels of users.
The Internet Explorer 5.5 changes announced Thursday include the following:
Notifications that Microsoft said will help users differentiate between first- and third-party cookies, plus automatic prompts that inform users anytime a third-party cookie is being offered by a Web site.
A "delete all cookies" control button that has been added to the browser's main "Internet options" page to make it easier for users to get rid of cookies.
New topics that have been added to Internet Explorer's help menu to better answer questions about cookies and their management.
Privacy advocates Thursday applauded Microsoft's announcement but said more needs to be done to ensure that cookies don't interfere with the privacy of computer users.
Mark Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, said that although the new controls offer better protections, the entire existence of cookies still leaves users vulnerable because no one really knows how deeply the cookies go to get information. "We really don't know what's in the cookie jar," Rotenberg said. "I think a lot of the problems with cookie management remain."
Jason Catlett, president of the New Jersey-based privacy group Junkbusters Corp., called the Microsoft announcement a move that has been sought by cookie critics since 1996. But, he noted, it will be years before the updated cookie controls are on most PCs because they will be installed only when users upgrade to the newest version of the browser.
On the other hand, Ed Black, president of the Washington-based Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), criticized Microsoft's move to tighten cookie controls aimed at third-party advertisers.
"This looks very much like another effort by Microsoft to utilize its monopoly power in the Internet browser market to establish dominance in an adjacent market -- namely, the market for personal data and information," Black said in a prepared statement. The CCIA supports efforts to protect privacy but doesn't believe cookie-generated data "should be available without restriction to some [companies] while requiring consumers to 'opt in' to providing information to everyone else," he added.