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Netscape spies on users

Privacy is another key competitive advantage for Internet Explorer.

When it comes to growth in Web-related concerns, nothing is more important than privacy. Users prefer traditional means for information and commerce if they feel that their personal information is unsafe on the Web. Fortunately, the Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P) is gaining momentum in the market. Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the open standard allows users to set privacy preferences in their browsers, which issue alerts or even block sites if their privacy policies don’t conform to the preferences.

To date, the only browser that is P3P-enabled is Internet Explorer (IE) 6. AT&T has developed a plug-in for other browsers (called Privacy Bird) that has similar functionality, but it’s still in Beta. If users want to gain control of how their data are used on the Net, the easiest thing to do is download IE 6 and set their preferences. Sites are rapidly adopting the XML-based technology for their privacy policies. Experts I’ve talked to for a story on P3P in our April issue claim that about two-thirds of all the big sites and about the same ratio of users will be P3P-enabled by the end of the year.

This is all good news for users and for the growth of the Web as a whole, but it is another nail in the coffin for Netscape Navigator, which has consistently lost market share to Internet Explorer for a variety of reasons over the last few years. Though bundling it into Windows was the biggest boost for IE, it has also continued to add innovative features while Netscape has remained fairly static. P3P is just the latest in a long line of features that give IE users a better Web experience. And if users refuse to use Microsoft products, the best alternative is Opera.

Perhaps the last nail in NetscapeÕs coffin relates to a news story on our site on Friday. It seems Netscape has been tracking user behavior on search sites such as Google. Type in a keyword in Google from a Netscape 6 browser and the keyword and IP address are sent to AOL (Netscape’s parent) for processing. AOL claims it just uses the information to track the number of users its partners get. Apparently it charges sites like Google for this traffic.

Regardless of what AOL does now, it could use this information to subvert P3P-like services. Let’s say I load Privacy Bird onto my Netscape 6 browser, type in “used sailboats” in Google, and get the search results. While Bird tells me about Google’s privacy policies, it does not tell me about Netscape’s privacy infringement, and my privacy is compromised as a result. No surprise, a day later my e-mail is bombarded by spam from used sailboat salesmen. While AOL does not sell this information now, it could at a later date, and that’s what scares me. It is also distressing that AOL has done little to embrace P3P. This indifference will only hurt its position in the market and its standing in the user community.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and

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