By T.R. REID and BRIT HUME.
Today’s column will deal with cookies and spam.
No, gentle reader, you didn’t turn to the Food section by mistake. You’re on the right page, and this is, in fact, the personal computer column. It just so happens that “cookies” and “spam” with neither term used in its culinary sense have become controversial topics recently among PC users who use the Internet, online services, or e-mail.
A “cookie,” in computer parlance, is an electronic tag that is entered on your computer’s hard disk each time you click on a particular site on the Internet. For example, if you tell your browser to go to The New York Times online home page, the Times will write a bit of code in the “cookies” folder of your hard disk noting that you visited the site. And the next time you log on to read the Times, it will automatically go to your hard disk and update the notation. (You can find your own “cookies” folder using the “Find File” function of either Windows or the Macintosh operating system.)
Some cookies seem to be beneficial. That New York Times service, for example, automatically checks your user-ID and password by reading the cookie file each time you sign on. That’s a lot quicker than making you type in the necessary codes each time you want to read the Times.
But most cookies are not there for your benefit. They are used by online services and Internet advertisers to keep track of the people who view a given page or ad on the Net.
The online industry says these electronic “cookies” are harmless no more intrusive than the little green tag left under your windshield wiper when you pull out of a parking lot. But a lot of computer users are uncomfortable, or downright angry, at the notion that somebody is tracking their computer use with no prior notice or authorization.
It seems almost certain that some poor PC user someday is going to be nominated for a judgeship or something and suddenly have people digging around to see if his computer has any telltale “cookies” from sites like Playboy or Penthouse.
With Netscape, Internet Explorer, and other major Net browsers, you can set the software so that it alerts you each time a “cookie” is aimed at your PC. We used this warning service for a while, but eventually turned it off for the sake of peace of mind. Some Web sites want to write five or six “cookies” for each new page you turn to, and it’s infuriating to have that cookie warning pop up time and again when you’re trying to get some work done on the Net.
What we need is a cookie filter a program that will permit the “cookies” we need to function on the Net, but block those that have no value to the PC user. There are several versions of such programs floating around these days; perhaps the best-known is “Cookie Cutter,” from Pretty Good Privacy. If you don’t have one now, don’t worry: It seems certain that cookie filters will become standard features of all future Net browsers, including the upcoming new versions of both Netscape and Explorer.
The “cookie,” in short, should cause computer users only mild indigestion. Electronic “spam” is far less appetizing.
The noun “spam” and the verb “to spam” refer to the nefarious practice of broadcasting vast numbers of messages to unwilling recipients via some online hookup. One common variety of “spam” is junk e-mail that is, when you receive a dozen or so e-mail messages every day from companies trying to issue you a credit card or give you a second loan on your house. An even worse example comes when some group is angry at a company or institution and begins “spamming” the target with thousands of electronic messages every day, just to foul up the network. (This latter practice is also known as “mailbombing.”)
Most PC users, thank God, will never be “spammed.” But if you are, you’ll feel an acute need for anti-spam protection. The software industry is on the case. There are many programs available already.
You might want to look at the offerings from an outfit called IC Group (on the Net at www.icgroup.com). Its programs let you block e-mail coming from any address that has sent junk e-mail in the past; another feature blocks the receipt of any e-mail message that includes words like “You have won One Million Dollars!”
The most important point about both of these electronic problems is that the private sector is diligently developing solutions. Here, as elsewhere in the computer business, we don’t want or need the heavy hand of government regulation to solve our problems.
T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington, D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Brit Hume at email@example.com.