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June 22, 2000

Microsoft, others unveil Web tools to control personal information

AP Internet Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- Microsoft Corp. and other companies Wednesday unveiled tools designed to give Internet users more control over how much personal information they divulge.

The products were introduced amid growing concern about Web sites that secretly track people's online habits and supply the information to marketers.

Many Web sites now create user profiles containing such things as e-mail addresses, favorite books and clothing sizes. These sites often disclose what they are doing, but the privacy statements are hard to find and hard to understand.

Tools using the new standards, known as Platform for Privacy Preferences or P3P, will translate those statements into computerese, so users' browsers can easily interpret them.

The tools will also help squash "Web bugs" -- invisible objects on Web pages often used for surreptitious tracking.

Users will also get warnings if they encounter sites without privacy statements. Comparable software will be available for Web site operators.

With such tools, Web users can direct personal information such as names and addresses only to sites that won't use it for marketing. If a site wants to collect data for marketing, the user will get a warning and the option to leave.

"Our goal is to have a common language for privacy on the Web," said Daniel J. Weitzner, technology and society domain leader for the World Wide Web Consortium developing the standards.

After four years of work, delayed in part by a patent dispute, the World Wide Web Consortium may approve the standards later this year.

Some of the tools are available free and immediately, while others will be available in a few weeks or months.

Microsoft will incorporate P3P into versions of Windows operating systems and browsers released after this year.

P3P won't completely stop Web sites from collecting information. And there is no way to verify whether sites actually follow their stated policies.

The P3P tools will work well only if most Web sites participate. P3P officials know of only 14 sites -- out of millions -- that follow the draft language. But the backing of Microsoft, America Online, IBM and other technology leaders could encourage more Web sites to embrace P3P.

Some privacy advocates are skeptical.

Horst Joepen, chief executive of WebWasher privacy software in Germany, warned of a "big danger of misuse" because Web sites can use the loophole to trick users into giving sensitive data.

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