Congress releases on-line privacy manual

Miracle of the month: It's pretty good, too

Unsure how on-line businesses track you and how you can thwart them? A bit foggy on re-mailers, identity managers, permission marketing, proxies, encryption? Well you wouldn't be alone. A new Congressional guide to privacy notes that among heavy Internet users a full twelve per cent don't even understand what a cookie does; and these ubiquitous little items are only the most basic weapons in the commercial privacy-busting arsenal.

Thus the US Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by political heavyweight Orrin Hatch (Republican, Utah), has laid it all out in remarkable detail in a new guide entitled "Know the Rules, Use the Tools". It's a good primer for those who don't know how to protect their on-line privacy with the tools already available.

"Companies are able, because of recent technological advances, to collect a vast amount of personally identifiable information about online consumers, often without that consumer's knowledge or consent," the authors observe.

So the guide includes detailed instructions for disabling cookies in both Netscape and M$ Internet Exploder, and how to set options to be notified of attempts to drop one on your HDD.

Additional applications to remove existing cookies and manage their future accumulation, such as IEClean, AdSubtract, Cookie Jar, Junkbuster Proxy, Cookie Cruncher, Cookie Manager, and Privacy Companion, are also discussed individually and thoroughly.

Your personal information is a valuable commodity to on-line ad-agency voyeurs, so why not make the perverts pay for it? The guide therefore details permission marketing, a scheme whereby surfers can obtain something of use to them in exchange for their profiles. "YesMail 77 and Brodia 78 are examples of permission marketing that provides the consumer with certain benefits in exchange for profile information," the report explains.

The guide also details the workings of identity scrubbers such as PrivadaControl, Incogno SafeZone, Anonymizer.com, ZeroKnowledge Freedom, and AT&T's Crowds, again with individual attention to the differences in function and features among them.

Some attention is given to impermanent e-mail; and a list of privacy resource sites such as the Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) and the Centre for Democracy and Technology (CDT) is included.

Overall, the guide is a useful primer for the doubtful surfer, but a doomed effort by Congress to skirt privacy legislation, which a large number of voters support. Members are torn between giving Hoi Polloi what it demands, and legislatively hobbling the digital Golden Goose.

It would be fair to note that if Netizens knew what tools already exist to thwart commercial snooping, and used them, there would be no need for privacy legislation. This is clearly what the Committee is trying to say by releasing the guide; but we still have something of an immense 'IF' here.

Few people have the interest, or the time, to educate themselves in the black art of anonymous Web use; and while that would require no more effort than mobilising Congress, human nature being what it is, we can expect the latter. It's a lesson we learn in the nursery: it may require more energy to wheedle Nanny into wiping our bottoms than it would to do it ourselves, but it is, strangely, a good deal more satisfying. And of course the more she hates doing it, the greater the satisfaction we derive. ®

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