The World Wide Web’s (www) material is formatted in a uniform format called HTML (Hypertext Markup Language). Information requests and responses adhere to a similar protocol. When a person accesses a server on the Web such as the Department of Education, the user’s web browser will send an information request to the Department of Education’s computer called a web server. The web server in turn responds to the request by transmitting the desired information to the user’s computer. At this point, the user’s browser will display the received information on the user’s screen. Cookies are embedded in the HTML information moving between a user’s computer and web servers; they function as pieces of information generated by the web server and stored in the user’s computer for future usedo. While originally conceived to provide a variety of benefits to the user, the practice of using cookies has sparked recent controversy regarding such issues as advertising and internet privacy.
What are Cookies?
A “cookie” is a tiny piece of information (no more than 255 characters and 4k of disk space) sent by a web server for storage on a web browser. Passwords, user names, and credit card numbers that have been supplied via forms are some of the most common pieces of information a cookie contains. As originally designed, cookies were supposed to benefit the user by saving time; websites such as the New York Times which requires user ID and passwords can store this information in the form of a cookie. Additionally, instead of having to submit a credit card number over the Internet multiple times, an online vendor could read the user’s cookie and match it to a stored profile which would contain that information. The cookie itself may come from the website or from the providers of the advertising banners or other graphics generally comprising a webpage. Thus, visiting a single website actually results in the downloading of multiple cookies, each one from an entirely different source.
Cookies and Advertising
Internet privacy advocates object to cookies for a variety of reasons. Principally among them is that the cookie is stored in the user’s computer without the user’s consent or knowledge. An appeal of the internet is the ability of users to remain (or, at least, try to remain) anonymous. The idea that an individual or organization is tracking or monitoring the actions of internet users is concerning for some. In addition, the very fact that tracking information is then used for the sole purpose of profiting, by, for example, targeting advertising, is another point of contention, a point which continues to escalate the number of instances where government websites are found to be using cookies, although these cookies may not be used to track visitors.
The Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011 would require companies to account for the type of information being collected as well as its uses. Furthermore, it would require parental consent before the collection of a child’s information. Advertisers would be prohibited from targeting children and teens online. The bill also calls for a “digital marketing bill of rights for teens” which would limit data collection and create an “eraser button” that would let users eliminate information online.
Resources for Blocking Cookies
Manage Cookies: Google Chrome
This resource offers tips for managing and blocking cookies for Google Chrome.
Firefox Help: Firefox’s Cookie Options
This website provides information on managing cookie options within Firefox.
CCleaner is a free program which protects privacy online.
This free, fully functioning privacy and anti-malware software is particularly helpful for blocking cookies.
Center for Democracy and Technology
The Center for Democracy and Technology is nonprofit public policy organization and the leading internet freedom organization.
Electronic Privacy Information Center
This resource provides a general introduction to cookies as well as information on the company Doubleclick’s class action settlement.