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Web Privacy Tool Unveiled

Hoping to jump-start a promising new privacy technology, Microsoft and a prominent Internet group will offer a free digital tool kit that one day will allow consumers to restrict what personal information Web sites collect about them.

These new tools, to be announced Tuesday, initially will help Internet companies write electronic privacy promises that can automatically be evaluated by a Web browser or other software using a nascent technology called the platform for privacy preferences, or P3P.

Consumers today must manually find a company's privacy statement online, if one exists, and read through legalese to determine what information, such as their name, e-mail address or even favorite authors or clothing sizes, a Web site might be harvesting.

Using the new technology, a customer's Internet browser could electronically interpret a company's promises, issuing a warning if it can't find a statement or if the Web site wants more information than a consumer is willing to disclose.

Despite support from the world's largest software company, hurdles remain and widespread adoption is months, if not years, away.

The technology is mired in a patent dispute and also almost certainly will require tens of millions of people on the Internet to install new browser software.

Microsoft's new tools, for example, are based partly on a relatively new computer code called extensible markup language, or XML, that even the most current versions of some browsers don't fully support.

Microsoft and the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation planned to make their announcement at the opening of an important privacy conference in Washington. They will propose changes in a key specification controlled by the World Wide Web Consortium, an Internet standards group, that would allow online merchants to use their new digital tools.

"The technology they're announcing probably isn't the final answer, but it's a real positive step," said Rick White, former co-chairman of the Congressional Internet Caucus who now practices technology law in Washington state. "I'm not certain that technology will solve all the problems. There are some gaps you might have to fix in a legislative way."

Both Congress and the Clinton administration have threatened the industry with tough new privacy laws unless companies adequately regulate themselves over ways they collect customer information across the Internet.

One serious problem for the technology is a legal battle with Seattle-based Intermind Corp., which earlier this year won a patent important to P3P. The company has said it is willing to license the technology for a reasonable price.

"Good software patents are expensive, and we were way ahead of the curve," said Drummond Reed, the company's chief technology officer.

The Web consortium said the group is "looking seriously ... at the validity and applicability of this patent."


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