Fighting potential abuses of the Internet often seems to take on elements of shadow-boxing - you can't always tell whether there's a real enemy or not. One reader has alerted me to a US company called DoubleClick.
"DoubleClick is targeting advertising based on a user's demographic profile," the reader wrote. "There's nothing wrong with that; in fact, that seems to be a step in the right direction. The catch is that they are using Netscape cookies to collect and store this data without the user being aware it's happening."
I visited DoubleClick's Web site (http://www.doubleclick.net), and it did seem fairly ominous. DoubleClick sells advertising through a variety of Web sites that include USA Today Online, Quicken Financial, Travelocity, and more than 30 others.
"When a user accesses a doubleclick.net member Web site, the user's browser makes a request [transparent to the user] to double click.net for an ad banner," read one of DoubleClick's Web pages. "DoubleClick retrieves information about the user, based on their IP address and cookie ID [if running Netscape], from the Internet Profiles Database."
"DoubleClick has created the largest and most complete user and organisation database on the Internet," another Web document explained. "DoubleClick is able to tell an incredible amount of information about a user, such as operating system, location, organisation name, type, revenue, and size."
"Here we have a clear situation where information is being gathered about a particular user without that user's knowledge," the reader wrote.
"Even the target marketing cards that masquerade as warranty registrations in every appliance or electronic device known to mankind give the user a choice to check a box to deny the right to share or sell the information provided. This check has been removed in the rush to the on-line world. I am concerned about where this tacit assumption that we give up our rights to our privacy as we head into an on-line world will lead us."
I was concerned, too. Now that I had been on DoubleClick's Web site, my own cookie file sported a DoubleClick cookie, ready to identify me to any other DoubleClick-enabled site. It seemed wrong that a file on my own system would be used to collect and pass on information about me.
I decided to contact the company CEO and president, Kevin O'Connor.
"There are a lot of misperceptions about the cookie file and what it can do," O'Connor said. "All we're using it for is to keep track of which ads we've shown you so you don't keep seeing the same one."
In spite of the company's claims about its user database, O'Connor said that DoubleClick does not use information about other sites the user has accessed.
"The potential for abuse on the Web is great, because it is so powerful. But it really has little to do with cookies," O'Connor said.
Still, I'm going to keep an eye on it. After all, telling friend from foe on the Internet is still a tricky business.