Microsoft this week announced a new add-in for Internet Explorer (IE) 5.5 that will allow users to control the information about them that gets sent to Web sites. The company says that a beta test of its new cookie management features for IE 5.5, which began this week, will lead the way to enhanced privacy, user education, and consumer protection. Microsoft also expects to roll these features into a future version of Internet Explorer, though critics are already voicing concerns that users will need to upgrade to at least IE 5.5 to get the new functionality. A public beta is expected within a month.

"As we move into the .NET environment, Microsoft is taking significant steps to put the power of personal information back into the hands of the consumer by addressing privacy and security concerns at the foundation of the software industry," says Bob Herbold, the executive vice president and COO at Microsoft. "The steps we've taken to build robust privacy-enhancing features directly into the Windows Internet technologies will enhance the customer experience by allowing consumers to define and control their information while taking advantage of the next generation of Web services."

Cookies are small text files that get stored on a user's machine. They're tied to specific Web sites so that personalization information can be stored locally on the user's machine and retrieved more easily when the user visits that site again. But cookies have been at the center of controversy since their inception. And newer technologies are allowing companies to track user activities across multiple Web sites, something cookies are not supposed to allow. The new IE cookie management tools include a consumer notification for cookies, which explains the difference between first- and third-party cookies, a "delete all cookies" button, and new online help topics to help users understand cookies and cookie management issues. When a user visits a Web site using cookies for the first time, a dialog will appear asking the user whether they wish to block the cookie. And you can choose between blocking all cookies or just cookies from third parties. So, for example, you might choose to prevent a site other than the one you're currently visiting to view the cookie associated with that site