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Future Web: Fast, Smart, and Private

Wednesday, April 5, 2000

IBM guru predicts a speedy, cookie-free Internet where you choose your privacy level.

by James Niccolai, IDG News Service

LOS ANGELES — As the Internet moves beyond the PC to encroach on every aspect of daily life, companies are developing technologies to help protect the personal privacy of Net users, says John Patrick, vice president of Internet technology with IBM.

In a wide-ranging speech about the future of the Web at the Internet World show here Wednesday, Patrick predicted that cookies will become a thing of the past, to be replaced by “digital identities” that give users greater control over who can spy on their Net activities.

Cookies are small pieces of code stored on a PC’s hard drive when a Web-surfer visits a Web site. They alert the site when the same person returns, in order to provide a more “personalized” experience.

“Cookies were a great idea, but it has led to some abuse,” Patrick says. Cookies can lead to an invasion of privacy when used to track your every move on the Web, and then can be employed to aggressively target advertisements in ways that aren’t always beneficial to Web surfers, he says.

By contrast, digital identities let you decide when you want to expose your identity on the Web, and when you want to surf anonymously. Initially a function of software, digital identities will evolve to use voice recognition or fingerprints to provide a means of identifying people with far more certainty than a signature on a piece of paper can today, he says.

P3P Promises Privacy

A related technology working its way through the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is P3P, which defines a standard that lets Web surfers specify the level of privacy they want on the Net. Patrick is also chair of the Global Internet Project and a founding member of the W3C.

“Some people want to be anonymous; other people want personalized Web pages and advertisements because they are in a hurry,” Patrick says. “P3P will allow us to express our preferences in the browser, and the server will then be able to set our appropriate level of privacy.”

Patrick didn’t say how close P3P is to fruition, although he acknowledges most Web sites aren’t yet even experimenting with new ways to identify and track users.

A more trusted relationship with the Web is just one advantage users can look forward to in tomorrow’s Internet, Patrick says. Besides improved speed, users can also expect the Net to be “always on, natural, everywhere, easy, and intelligent.”

Patrick says intense competition between cable companies and carriers, combined with new technologies on the drawing board, will make them appear sooner than people expect.

“There is no arrival date, it’s just that every day it gets a bit closer,” he says. “Just look at the Internet today and think how much it has changed from five years ago.”