Microsoft pushes privacy tools

Is Bill Gates looking out for the little guy? Despite its recent record of privacy pitfalls, Microsoft is pushing a new initiative that may help you guard your personal information online.

Microsoft, in conjunction with the US Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), on Tuesday submitted a new standard to implement the Platform for Privacy Preference Project, or P3P.

The P3P is a machine-readable site-privacy framework that lets you restrict Web sites' access to personal information when you browse. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is reviewing the XML-based technology for endorsement as a standard. Microsoft and EFF also promote the spec as a boon for e-commerce, because online buyers may feel more comfortable with security and privacy practices.

"These P3P standards place more control in the hand of the individual," says Tara Lemmey, executive director of the EFF. "Users will be able to move around the Web, quickly and effortlessly detecting privacy policies."

P3P-based privacy statements are structured expressions of a Web site's privacy practices that are automatically read by a browser or search engine. Currently, no browsers possess such a capability.

Machine-readable privacy policies represent the first step toward creating an Internet-wide privacy network, advocates say.

"Once browser companies and service providers start to adopt P3P initiatives, P3P-enabled browsers will automatically identify machine-readable policies and the whole privacy network will light up," Lemmey says.

While the P3P specification is not new, it has been slow to proliferate. Many consumer Web sites are reluctant to adopt the P3P technology, saying that implementing P3P is a daunting technical task.

Privacy concerns are named as the leading barrier to e-commerce growth in a recent joint study by the Information Technology Association of America and Ernst & Young.

Yet, US Federal Trade Commission figures from 1998 indicate only 14 per cent of Web sites divulge their privacy policies and their practices about gathering information from users who come browsing.

Lemmey at the EFF feels the onus now lies on companies like Microsoft to establish privacy policies and set an example for the rest of the Internet community.

Microsoft plans to post Privacy Wizard tools on the MSN LinkExchange Web site early next week. The privacy tools will automate P3P installation steps and make it easier for a small business to deploy a machine-readable privacy policy.

Microsoft's Privacy Wizard will be available for free download, says Upendra Shardanand, program manager for Microsoft Web Essentials. The Wizard walks a Web site manager through a series of questions to identify or determine privacy practices. It generates a generic privacy policy (with no references to the Microsoft Wizard), which can be modified as needed. The Wizard offers resources and links to related information, and it works with any browser.

The Privacy Wizard, developed in cooperation with the non-profit organisation TrustE, is the first application of the P3P framework.

For the new P3P initiatives to flourish, more companies must follow Microsoft's lead and develop similar privacy implementations, Lemmey says.

"We need to provide an open standard," Lemmey adds.

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