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U.S. antidrug site dealing cookies

Industry Standard

June 23, 2000
Web posted at: 10:13 a.m. EDT (1413 GMT)

(IDG) -- The White House announced Wednesday that the Office of National Drug Control Policy's online antidrug message has been getting an assist from software cookies silently deposited in the Web browsers of those who visit the department's flashy Freevibe antidrug Web site.

"We will take all steps necessary to halt these practices now," the White House said in a statement. "ONDCP will halt the use of cookies on its behalf. At no time has ONDCP requested or received any personally identifiable information based on the use of cookies."

Cookies are text files saved in your browser's directory or folder and stored in RAM while your browser is running. Most of the information in a cookie is pretty mundane stuff, but some Web sites use cookies to store personal preferences or to tally visitors.

  MESSAGE BOARD

Internet consultant Richard Smith told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee last week that Web surfers who type in the phrase "grow pot" in search engines such as AltaVista or Lycos are served government-sponsored antidrug banner ads. Smith says a Scripps Howard news service reporter subsequently discovered that at least one of the banner ads led surfers to the Freevibe site and that Internet ad server DoubleClick dropped cookies into the browsers of the site's visitors.

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Freevibe collects e-mail addresses from visitors who type in messages, but promises that "no information, including your e-mail address, will be sold or distributed to any other organization." It makes no mention of DoubleClick's tracking cookies.

"This information is used by sites to determine whether the [banner ad] is working," says DoubleClick spokesman Josh Isay. "It is totally anonymous, it is the property of that site, and it is not shared with anyone."

The episode spotlights the controversial subject of online profiling, whereby Internet ad server companies, such as DoubleClick and Engage, track Web surfers in order to strategically target banner ads and site content, as well as to help sites keep a running count of visitors. The practice has come under fire in recent months, especially since DoubleClick announced plans to start combining anonymous online data with personally identifiable information. DoubleClick backed away from those plans following a public outcry and the launching of a Federal Trade Commission investigation.

The White House reaction betrays a certain sensitivity by the administration on the privacy question. Last month, the FTC recommended that Congress pass broad new online privacy legislation. On June 15, Rep. Dick Armey, D-Tex., and other leading congressional Republicans retaliated by sending a letter to the General Accounting Office asking it to review the fair-information practices of government Web sites.

"We underestimated the sensitivity of the White House to this practice," says ONDCP spokesman Donald Maple, adding that the office would "rethink" its Internet privacy policies.

"The concern here is that as DoubleClick does more and more monitoring it'll be really attractive to law enforcement," Smith says. He paints an Orwellian scenario whereby the FBI or the Drug Enforcement Administration could cull incriminating data about Web surfers' online habits.

A coalition of ad servers, including DoubleClick, is haggling with the FTC over a new set of voluntary industry regulations. DoubleClick has said it will resume its plans to combine online data with offline information, such as names and addresses, once the new standards are in place. Negotiations have been bogged down over enforcement issues, and whether the choices that Web surfers are given should differ depending on when their data is collected.




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RELATED SITES:
AltaVista
DoubleClick
Lycos

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