Microsoft has moved to address concerns over how its web browser handles user privacy on the web by adding a feature that enables users to control 'cookies'.
The facility, which will not be generally available for at least another month, will allow Internet Explorer (IE) 5.5 users to control their personal information on the web by managing cookies.
Cookies are software used by websites to collect data about visitors so that they can be identified when they revisit the site.
Microsoft said the changes are in response to complaints from consumers, privacy advocates and US government officials over how IE handles cookies. In a letter sent to the software giant in May, a group of 10 US state attorney generals said cookies raise serious privacy concerns because information gathered could be used to build user profiles.
The new feature will notify users through a pop-up window whenever a third-party cookie or a persistent cookie (one that stays on the machine for period of time) is served to their computer.
Users will then have the option of rejecting the cookie even if the default setting on their browsers automatically accepts them. Also a 'delete all cookies' button will be added to the primary internet options page to allow users to remove all cookies from their hard drives.
The new features were released in beta test form this week and will be released as a public beta test within four weeks. After testing, the facility will be available as a patch for IE 5.5 and is expected to be built into future versions of the browser.
Some privacy advocates have cautiously welcomed the move and believe it will force other browser developers to add similar functions. Jason Catlett, president of US privacy advocate group Junkbusters, said: "Netscape, which historically has had better privacy protection, will have to get to at least parity [now that] Microsoft has leapfrogged it."
Others warn that it will be years before the majority of surfers are protected from cookies because many users do not regularly update their browsers.
The feature in IE 5.5 will not affect other forms of cookies, such as those used to provide services such as daily weather reports.
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