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Cookie conundrums? Google contest wants to help

WASHINGTON–Ever tried giving your mother a primer on cookies–the Web, not chocolate chip, variety, of course?

It’s not easy, but a user-generated video contest chiefly bankrolled by Google wants to help.

The competition began accepting entries about a month ago from about two dozen filmmakers interested in helping to demystify the tiny, widely used text files for a general audience. It concluded here Friday, at the second day of a Federal Trade Commission workshop on behavioral advertising, with the announcement of the victor, who was set to receive a $5,000 grand prize. (Click here to view all the entries that made the final cut at Google’s just-launched YouTube privacy channel.)

The winning entry, picked by a panel of judges from a pool of five finalists, was created by Clayton Miller, a 27-year-old Chicagoland resident. His animated creation, which was arguably the most subdued of the finalists, likens cookies to “virtual note cards” that, “just like real-world note cards…are used to help Web sites remember things.” It then runs through the pluses and minuses of having Web cookies turned on, off, or somewhere in between. Here’s the clip:

In case you don’t have time to sit through the two-minute videos, here’s a short reminder: Cookies are the small text files that are dished up by Web sites, record certain user information and are saved on one’s hard drive. Retrieved during return visits, they enable Web sites to recall things like a user’s e-commerce shopping cart selections and log-in data. They’re typically set to expire within a certain amount of time.

Google, like the vast majority of advertising-supported Web services, has a stake in making users more comfortable with the concept of cookies. The company has encountered complaints from privacy advocates who argue it retains information about its users’ search habits for too long. In response, it announced this summer that its cookies would expire after two years, instead of in 2038.

Granted, consumers aren’t powerless to fight placement of cookies on their computers if they’d prefer not to have their information stored. But, as Google noted at the time of its policy change, many of them simply don’t know how–or that it’s possible–to delete cookies.

Google may have provided most of the financial backing for the venture–and is hosting the final videos on its newly unveiled YouTube privacy channel–but the idea for the contest came from Internet luminary Esther Dyson, a former CNET editor at large. She told workshop attendees that her goal was not so much to select a winner, but to educate consumers and to drive a discussion about online privacy issues. She was quick to note that cookies aren’t the only way consumers’ Internet behavior can be tracked, so understanding how they work is only a “first step,” she told FTC workshop attendees.

Some of the contest judges, which included representatives from the online advertising industry, a Washington Post technology reporter and public-interest groups, suggested the intense focus on cookies left something to be desired.

“The problem isn’t cookies,” argued Jeff Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy, which is advocating for the government to impose tougher privacy rules related to Web advertising. “The industry knows this, and in many ways, this contest fits the way the industry wants to frame the problem–in a very narrow, technical way.”

There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to blocking or allowing cookies, either, said Alissa Cooper, policy analyst for the Center for Democracy and Technology, which has received funding from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL. “If youre someone who likes getting relevant ads,” she said, “maybe your choice is going to be different than someone concerned about their privacy.”

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