The Devil in the Dessert

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted November 01, 2000
by Amy J. Blankstein

WHO'D THINK consumers would be scared of something as sweet-sounding as cookies. While businesses see the benefits of these little bites of consumer information, the browsing public isn't so sure. The technological tide is turning, and consumers will soon be able to use new tools to help control their private data. If Web sites want to keep customers, they'd better make sure their privacy policies -- and the privacy policies of any of their advertisers or partners -- are up to snuff.

While the Internet-going public may have had trouble identifying who was tracking them and how to prevent it in the past, several tools have been developed that will make it easier for them to take control of their personal information. The update to Microsoft's Explorer 5.5 browser alerts users when cookies (bits of code that Web sites place on a user's hard drive to track their online movements) are placed on their computer, identifies who is placing the cookie (the Web site or a third party advertiser) and what type of cookie it is. It also lets the user block that cookie from being placed on the hard drive at all.

According to a recent survey conducted by The Pew Internet & American Life Project (www.pewinternet.org), 54 percent of Internet users believe that Web sites' tracking of users is harmful because it invades their privacy. Just 27 percent say tracking is helpful because it allows the sites to provide information tailored to specific consumers.

"We believe more information and more consumer empowerment can only be beneficial for our customers." says Microsoft's director of corporate privacy, Richard Purcell. "This is the first step in providing a comprehensive privacy solution." he adds.

The next step will involve the Platform for Privacy Preferences, or P3P, which was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (www.w3c.org). P3P is a piece of code and will be incorporated into browsers that will enable users to easily set privacy safeguards. Once a user sets his or her privacy preferences, P3P alerts them when they are about to enter a Web site that doesn't meet those requirements. "It's up to each individual Web site to have a privacy policy in place and have it be in such a format that it can be compliant with P3P." says David Steer, director of communications for Truste (www.truste.com), an online privacy organization.

"Not only should you know what your own privacy policy is," he adds, "Be very clear as to what the privacy policy of your partner is and any third party that would interact with your customers -- know what their privacy policies are as well." So if your privacy policy is a little shaky, now's the time to shore it up.

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