Microsoft details browser privacy tools

Microsoft Corp. on Wednesday delivered details on consumer privacy enhancements that will come bundled in Microsoft’s upcoming browser release, Internet Explorer 6. For about nine months now, the Redmond, Wash.-based company has been building tools based on an evolving privacy standard dubbed P3P, for the Platform for Privacy Preferences.

Specifically, IE 6 privacy enhancements detailed Wednesday are designed to let consumers set the browser to alert them to the privacy policies used at visited corporate sites.

Consumer fear over the potential for privacy invasion in corporate data-collection and sharing practices has fueled support for the standard, which is also being wrapped into products services from vendors such as IBM Corp. and AT&T Corp.

Microsoft has declared its P3P-related tools are now “fully functioning,” said Michael Wallent, Microsoft’s product unit manager for Internet Explorer.

Wallent and other company officials were on a P3P road show in Washington on Wednesday briefing privacy advocates, content builders, and ISPs about the new capabilities.

Microsoft’s privacy tools use XML technology and agreed-upon privacy terminology on compliant sites.

“People active in the privacy community for some time have been able to tweak their browser settings based on their privacy preferences,” Wallent said. “But this is a way for those who are not immersed in the technology to use technology like P3P to track use of their personal information across the Internet,” he added.

IE 6 users will be able to choose from five privacy settings – from the highest, being rejection of all sites that use cookies, to the lowest, which permits use of all cookies. Cookies are information bits tagged on users’ hard drives to show surfing behavior.

Settings in the middle range include more complicated criteria. For instance, Microsoft privacy tools will comb through a visited site’s “compact policy” – or condensed tags that let browser software know the site’s cookie policy – for matches with user preferences.

The tools let users make decisions based on whether cookies are being placed directly by visited sites or by third parties. IE 6 could deny placement of a cookie if it detects that personal information is being gathered or shared for outside purposes.

The P3P standard is the brainchild of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), in Cambridge, Mass., which has spent years spearheading P3P and encouraging vendors to develop products around the standard.

But some privacy advocates have voiced sentiments that P3P alone is not enough to fend off privacy infringements. Officials at groups such as Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in the past have said that P3P is based on a “weak” notice-and-choice approach that asks consumers to trade in privacy for e-commerce benefits.

“We are not saying that this solves all privacy problems for all people at all times,” said Microsoft’s Wallent. “But a big concern now among consumers is cookies and Web bugs or hidden tracking of information across the Internet.”

Microsoft is banking on public concerns over privacy to draw consumers to IE 6.

“People think the browsing space is a flat market,” Wallent said. But since browsers are a key part of e-commerce transactions, the privacy features of those browsers will become more important. “There is a real need to create technology that keeps up with what consumers demand and want,” Wallent said.

Wallent said privacy tools built into IE 6 are only a starting point, since Microsoft expects many more add-on products built around P3P.