A History of Cookies and Their Importance

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When most people hear the word “cookie,” the first thing they often think of are sweet baked goods, often made with chocolate chips, peanut butter or oatmeal. When speaking about the Internet, however, “cookie” takes on a different meaning.



According to www.whatis.com, an IT definition Web site, a cookie is “information that a Web site puts on your hard disk so that it can remember something about you at a later time.” They sometimes are called “HTTP cookies” or “Web cookies” to help distinguish them from the edible variety.



Whatever you call them, they are an important part of e-commerce and Web browsing. Cookies can be used for many things such as authenticating logins to Web sites and storing preferences for the Web sites, and they can be used for tracking where a user goes, whether within a Web site or between Web sites.



Some who are familiar with these possible uses consider all cookies to be evil, while others consider them to be innocuous files used by for storing data on the local machine. The truth, however, lies somewhere in between.



To understand this difference of opinion and the importance of cookies, one must understand the origins of cookies and how they got to where they are today, along with the benefits they provide.



Origin of Cookies



The origin of cookies can be traced back to June 1994. While employed at Netscape, Lou Montulli was working on an e-commerce application for a customer. He came up with the idea of cookies to solve problems they had implementing an online shopping cart. Montulli and John Giannandrea created the first Netscape cookie specification, which was included in Version 0.9 beta of Netscape, released that September. Montulli and Giannandrea applied for a patent on this technology in 1995, which they received three years later. The first version of Internet Explorer to support cookies was Version 2, which was released in October 1995.



In April 1995, discussions for a formal cookie specification began. Initially, two proposals were introduced. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) created a special working group to work on this specification. The group soon decided to use the Netscape specification as a starting point for the specification.



When cookies were first introduced, the browsers accepted the cookies by default, without knowledge of the user. While some people knew about cookies in the beginning, the general public did not know about them until an article appeared in the international business newspaper Financial Times on Feb. 12, 1996.



Around the time of the Financial Times article, the IETF identified third-party cookies as a serious threat to privacy. Because of this, when RFC 2109 was published a year later in February 1997, it stated that third-party cookies should either not be allowed or disallowed by default. At the time, Netscape and Internet Explorer ignored this recommendation regarding third-party cookies. RFC 2965 was published in October 2000, further detailing specifications for cookies.



With this increased awareness, people began think about possible privacy concerns regarding cookies. This caused the U.S. International Trade Commission to discuss cookies twice in hearings, once in 1996 and again in 1997.



Detriments and Benefits of Cookies



By the time RFC 2109 was published, many advertising companies had started using third-party cookies. These cookies were used to provide users with appropriate advertisements and, in some cases, track what Web sites users visited. The latter is only possible when visiting sites that receive ads from the same service such as DoubleClick.



Many Web sites rely on cookies to function, however.

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