IE6 Privacy Features Cause Advertising Headache

Online privacy advocates will be ecstatic when they take a look at the first implementation of P3P, the Platform for Privacy Preferences, in Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6. P3P technology will allow users to set their privacy preferences in the browser and then
let the browser take care of managing whether sites with questionable policies have access to set cookies and the like. But the new restrictions may prove to be more trouble than expected, as P3P can block third-party cookies and result in broken ad banners.


P3P is a new industry standard that enables companies to express their privacy practices in specially formatted tags embedded in their Web sites. P3P is officially an initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an industry group that approves standards like HTML. Ideally, sites will encode their privacy policies in P3P and the browser will alert the user to practices that conflict from what the user has specified.

BetaNews spoke with Microsoft Product Unit Manager Michael Wallent about the P3P features in Internet Explorer 6. Wallent told BetaNews, "We use P3P as a tool for consumers to make better use of cookies on the Web." He added, "[P3P] gives users more control on the Web."



To help small businesses quickly comply with P3P standards, Microsoft has created a Privacy Wizard. Web
administrators can fill out questions relating to the privacy practices of their site, and Microsoft will generate a P3P compliant XML
file to be placed on their Web site allowing browsers to automatically understand the policy.

Many larger Web sites have more elaborate policies that must be reformatted for P3P. Some companies may even be forced to change privacy practices to ensure their content displays in Internet Explorer.

In the case of Internet giant AOL, internal documents examined by BetaNews revealed that the company is facing a serious problem making their banner ads display and click-through on Internet Explorer 6.0. One document discusses this problem, noting "Recent testing with the bundled IE6 browser has revealed problems with regard to the P3P technology and AOL content and ad banners. By default, IE6 will be blocking third party cookies. Because these do not have a P3P compliant policy header, the browser blocks and causes error pages, or 'web page cannot be found messages.'"

Microsoft's Wallent noted previous issues with LinkExchange banners, and acknowledged problems with ads may occur, "in the way they do the redirect." He continued, "if the target [URL] is not set in the link and [it is] in the cookie, it is possible."



Documents reveal that AOL has been reluctant to develop a P3P compliant privacy policy, because it forces the company to clarify previously ambiguous or nonexistent aspects of current practices. One AOL Time Warner employee working on the problem writes, "Having to create P3P compliant policy(ies) will force us to have to itemize activities that are not presently discussed in our privacy policy, e.g., cookie use. This could lead to comparisons with our AOL Privacy Policy which omits much of the detail we would be forced to answer to in a P3P compliant policy."

Microsoft's Wallent agreed that in many cases, "the issue is not putting up the XML tags, it is defining the legal privacy policy."

It is unclear whether AOL will be able to remedy the situation before Internet Explorer 6 is released this fall. As a result, the timeline
for adoption of the new browser could play an important role in whether or not AOL will be able to correct any problems before many users upgrade to IE6.

Geoff Johnston, vice president of product marketing for WebSideStory's StatMarket, a service which monitors Internet user trends, told BetaNews "Generally the usage share of new browsers, at least in Microsoft's case,
tend to take off very quickly, while their predecessor begins to dip almost
immediately."

StatMarket data indicates that Internet Explorer 5.0 gained a 20% market share in only three months.

AOL Time Warner spokesperson Tricia Primrose told BetaNews the company does not disclose its Internet advertising revenue, but "approximately 24% of AOL Time Warner's revenue comes from advertising." This figure includes all advertising, including, for example, television ads on CNN, thus any impact on revenue may be negligible.

Given all of the pressure on P3P to provide users with more control over their personal information, it remains to be seen whether it will be a success with consumers. Some technologies added to Internet Explorer in
previous versions, such as the PICS ratings tags, have received a lukewarm reception. If consumers become irritated and set their browser to the lowest privacy setting, it could spell a quick demise for P3P as a standard.

AOL did not return repeated requests for comment on problems associated with AOL ad banners in Internet Explorer 6.


Nate Mook contributed to this report.

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