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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

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August 27, 2008 3:09 PM

Microsoft's new browser: Forget "porn mode," the cookie stuff is what's hot

Posted by Brier Dudley

For some reason, tech journalists and bloggers love it when there's a chance to use the word "porn" in their stories.

Maybe they're hoping to lure more search engine traffic, or just revealing something about how they use computers.

Either way, they went nuts after the private-browsing feature in Microsoft's new browser was dubbed "porn mode."

That refers to the "InPrivate Browsing" feature in Internet Explorer 8, which became available in beta test form today. When you browse in this mode, it leaves no tracks in your browser.

But don't be put off by the sniggering stories. This is a great feature for anyone who is uncomfortable with the Big Brotherish level of user tracking that online ad companies do nowadays. That stealthy monitoring is the obscenity everyone encounters on the Web.

Does anybody really want Google, Yahoo, Amazon, Microsoft and other big tech companies following their tracks, building customer profiles and targeting them with offers?

Internet Explorer 8 won't restore the level of privacy that existed before the Web. It also won't satisfy privacy fanatics who have more complex ways to mask themselves online.

But IE8 will make it easier for average users to have more control over their browsing privacy. This is long overdue.

My favorite addition is the ability to selectively delete cookies, the potentially snoopy bits of software that Web sites deposit in your browser to keep track of users.

You can delete cookies with a click in any browser if you're concerned about privacy. But if you delete them all, you have to re-enter passwords when you come back to sites that you regularly use.

Internet Explorer 8 makes it easy to preserve cookies for "favorite" sites, and delete all the rest. That way you can clean up the browser's cache and history, but preserve stuff that keeps you linked to sites you trust.

Microsoft isn't giving up on targeted ads. But it must be confident that its own Web sites are useful enough that people will list them as favorites and keep its cookies and other targeting technologies intact.

Some think the privacy tools are really intended to derail Google's ad-serving system. I'm sure Google will figure out a way to survive, either by getting itself into the favorites folder or by offering an irresistible toolbar plug-in that puts its technology back into your browser.

Users win either way. They'll love these new features, and other browser makers will have to add more privacy controls or make their existing privacy tools easier to use so they provide the same level of comfort.

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Gadgets and games | Fun stuff I've written about lately includes Apple's iPhone, Hewlett-Packard's HDX laptop and Microsoft's Halo3. Also on the radar are new digital video boxes such as the Tivo HD and the Vudu.