Cookie. You wouldn't think a computer tool with such a
playful-sounding name would create the fear that it does.
But these tiny Web-browser helpers are an example of how
the useful can get tossed in with the dangerous through
the hysteria brought about by the real threats of computer
viruses, hacking, spyware, spam, and phishing.
In the past, Congress has considered anti-spyware legislation
that has the potential of banning cookies that you don't
specifically agree to allow a Web site to place on your
computer's hard disk. (Congress likely will consider
it in the future as well.) At first glance, this legislation
seems like a good idea. But it would hurt the online
advertising industry, and, for consumers, it would likely
mean that there would be fewer free Web sites and more
So, what exactly are cookies, and are they really worth
getting worked up over?
A cookie is a small data file that can serve any number
of purposes. It can prevent you from having to type
in your user name and password each time you visit a
site that requires a login. It can keep track of your
preferences with those sites that allow you to specify
the type of content you want to see or how you want
to see it. It can be used by e-commerce security systems
to identify your browser as protection against hackers.
And it can be a way for Web sites and their advertisers
to track where people click so they can better target
their content and advertising.
It's the tracking that most worries some people, who
feel that it allows Big Brother to peer over their shoulder
and watch them as they surf. But the first purpose,
storing user names and passwords, is more of a threat.
Both threats, though, are overblown.
The big concern is third-party cookies, which are set
not by the site you're at, but rather by Web banner
advertising companies such as DoubleClick.
Keep in mind, though, that cookies aren't spyware.
Advertisers and the companies that service them use
cookies to track aggregate behavior and to customize
ads. This prevents you, for instance, from seeing the
same ad over and over at different sites. They don't
link what you do on the Web to who you are.
One potential problem with cookies, though, is the
theft of the user name and password information in them
by hackers who could then access your bank, credit card,
or other account. The solution, as with other hacking
threats, is to use a firewall program to protect this
and other sensitive data on your computer.
The core issue is who pays for Web content. Just as
with other media, if you diminish ad revenue, the money
has to come from somewhere else. In this case, that
If Congress passes anti-spyware legislation that bans
cookies you don't specifically agree to accept, you
would need to click on an “OK” dialog box,
agreeing to accept cookies, multiple times, page after
page, as you surf any given Web site. This obviously
would render cookie technology unwieldy and would require
an alternative technology, which could take a year or
longer to develop, said Dave Morgan, CEO of TACODA Systems,
Inc. (http://www.tacoda.com), an online advertising
services firm in New York City that helps large publishers
target their online ads.
In the meantime, some sites would likely switch to
subscriptions for the bulk of their content rather than
keep it free.
If you're still concerned with cookies (and many people
are), you have options. Web browsers let you disable
third-party (or all) cookies or otherwise customize
how you deal with cookies when you surf. Internet Explorer
saves cookies in separate files in the Cookies folder.
Netscape saves cookies in a single file called cookies.txt.
The Web site GetNetWise (http://privacy.getnetwise.org/browsing/tools)
provides instructions on how to change your browser's
settings to customize how it manages cookies, whether
you use Internet Explorer 6 or 5; AOL 8, 7, 6, or 5;
Netscape Navigator 7, 6, or 4.5; or Opera 6 or 5. Disabling
all cookies, however, can limit your experience with
some sites and can prevent you from accessing others.
gives you the option of opting out of its site-to-site
cookie tracking, as does the Network Advertising Initiative
(http://www.networkadvertising.org) for DoubleClick
as well as similar online advertising services.
The personal computer revolution is all about personal
choice, and this includes cookies.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author
of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org