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The Benefits, and the Fear, of Cookie Technology

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You wouldn’t think a computer tool with a name as innocuous-sounding as cookie would create the fear that it does. But these tiny Web-browser helpers are an example of how the useful can get tossed in with the dangerous through the near-hysteria brought about by the real threats of computer viruses, hacking, spyware, spam, and phishing.

Antispyware legislation that has been considered by Congress in the past and that probably also will be considered in the future has the potential of banning cookies that you don’t specifically agree to allow a Web site to place on your computer’s hard disk. At first glance this seems like a good idea, but it would hurt the online advertising industry, and for consumers, it would likely mean that fewer free sites and more pay sites.

So what exactly are cookies, and are they really worth getting worked up over?

The Purposes and Problems

A cookie is a small data file that can serve a number of purposes. It can prevent you from having to log in with your user name and password each time you visit a site that requires a login. It can keep track of your preferences with sites that allow you to specify the type of content you want to see or how you want to see it. It can be used by e-commerce security systems to identify your browser as protection against hackers. And it can be a way for Web sites and their advertisers to track where people click so they can better target their content and advertising.

It’s this last purpose that most worries some people, who feel that it allows Big Brother to peer over their shoulder and watch them as they surf. The first purpose, storing user names and passwords, is actually more of a threat. But both threats are overblown.

Keep in mind that cookies aren’t spyware. Advertisers and the companies that service them use cookies to track aggregate behavior and to customize ads, preventing you, for instance, from seeing the same ad over and over at different sites. They don’t link what you do on the Web to who you are.

One potential problem with cookies, though, is the theft of the user name and password information in them by hackers who could then access the user’s bank, credit card, or other account. The solution here, as with other hacking threats, is to use a firewall program to protect this and other sensitive data on your computer.

If Congress passes antispyware legislation that bans cookies you don’t specifically agree to accept, you would need to click on an OK dialog box, agreeing to accept cookies, multiple times, page after page, as you surf any given Web site. This obviously would render cookie technology unwieldy and would require an alternative technology, which could take a year or longer to develop, said Dave Morgan, CEO of TACODA Systems (www.tacoda.com), an online advertising-services firm in New York City that helps large publishers target their online ads.

In the meantime, some sites would likely switch to subscriptions for the bulk of their content rather than keep the bulk of their content free. The core issue here is who pays for Web content. Just as with other media, if you diminish ad revenue, the money has to come from somewhere else, and in this case that means you.

Controlling Cookies

If you’re still concerned with cookies, and many people are, you have

options. Web browsers let you disable all cookies, disable third-party cookies (which are set not by the site you’re at but typically by Web-banner advertising companies), or otherwise customize how you deal with cookies when you surf.

Internet Explorer saves cookies in separate files in the Cookies folder.

Netscape saves cookies in a single file called cookies.txt.

GetNetWise (http://privacy.getnetwise.org/browsing/tools) provides instructions on how to change your browser’s settings to customize management of cookies, whether you use Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator, Opera, or AOL on a PC, or a Safari Browser or AOL on a Mac. Disabling all cookies, however, can limit your experience with some sites and can prevent you from accessing other sites.

DoubleClick (www.doubleclick.com/us/about_doubleclick/privacy/ad-cookie) gives you the option of opting out of its site-to-site cookie tracking.

The Network Advertising Initiative (www.networkadvertising.org) lets you opt out of site-to-site cookie tracking for DoubleClick and similar online advertising services.

The personal computer revolution is all about personal choice, and this includes cookies.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.

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