The Hamilton Spectator
Tuesday, May 27, 1997
page D12

Web giants plan privacy system

Users to get more control of information they give out

Netscape Communications, Firefly Network, and VeriSign plan a new system that would allow Internet users to opt out of submitting personal information to website servers.
by Josh Brown

Cyberspace's big high-tech firms plan to propose a global standard for protecting Internet users' privacy -- without damaging marketers' ability to target them.

"It's an improvement from the privacy point of view because it gives users more control over what information is given out", said David Jones, an assistant professor of computer science at McMaster University.

Netscape Communications Corp. and other high-tech companies plan to announce today a new system that allows users to opt out of submitting personal information to website owners.

Later this week, Netscape, along with Internet software companies Firelfy Network Inc. and Verisign Inc. will present their proposal to the WorldWide Web Consortium, which sets Internet standards.

Currently, your personal computer can exchange text files - known as cookies - with the computer controlling the website you are visiting.

For example, a newspaper website may ask users to fill out their name, e-mail, and favourite sections.

The website computer stores this information in the users' personal computer and retrieves it each time that site is accessed. This enables a sports fan to get right to the sports section without sifting through the entire paper.

"Now, on your next visit, the computers will talk to each other and read the information stored in the cookie. It will see the interests listed and ... deliver customized information to that user", said Jones.

"Information stored in cookies can be sold to advertising and marketing companies."

But with the new system a pop-up box will appear each time the user visits a new website and ask the user what information they want stored. Also, the user will be told what information is being requested and have the option to block it.

Dialogue Box

"It's refining what's already out there. Currently, a user only has the option to give all the information the website wants or nothing", said Jones. "For example, the new system will allow you to give out your hobbies, but not your name or e-mail address."

Jones said having a dialogue box pop up every time you visit a new website can become tedious. He thinks that it will disrupt the flow of surfing the Internet.

"People will find it's not as much fun exploring the Internet anymore. Although they will have this new option, they may not care and may turn it off. And then we're back to where we started."

Jones thinks the new system is Netscape's attempt to balance the interests of both its customers - the home user and the business user. But he admits that it does give people more control.

"While personal information is being sold to advertising companies, the industry is not that big yet. The software is still relatively new and is always changing", he said.

"This announcement is saying that people are concerned and don't want the Net turning into a bunch of companies that collect e-mail addresses and sell them to other companies."

Marketers will benefit from the new system since they will be able to target a suer's specific interest.

"It's a compromise for both business and people. Marketers don't need to know your name or e-mail. As long as they know your interests, then they can target certain ads to you on the websites you frequent."

Jones, who is also the president of Electronic Frontier Canada, a non-profit organization with the aim of protecting freedom of expression and the right to privacy on the Internet, said it would be a good thing if this policy is adopted.

-- with filed form Associated Press.

Copyright © 1997 by The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.