Configure your browser to deal with cookies

by Andy on February 18th, 2008 in How to.

I love the idea of people taking control of their PC - it's cool using a computer when you know whats going on under the hood. Its even cooler when you configure your computer to take care of a task more intelligently. And cooler yet when you can show off your new knowledge to someone! Or maybe thats just me...

There's often some confusion about cookies, so here's quick run down on what they are (and aren't), the different kind of cookies the average web surfer should be aware of and how you can configure your browser to deal with them. The information below is by no means exhaustive - if you want to read more, a great place to start is Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HTTP_cookie

What is a cookie?

A cookie is a small piece of information sent by a web site to a browser. The browser sends information from the cookie back to the site that sent it each time the browser accesses the site.

There are two types of cookies that users should be aware of - first party and third party cookies.

  • First party cookies are those set by the web page that you are currently viewing. For example, if you visit www.anywebsite.com the site may set a cookie labeled www.anywebsite.com - this is a first party cookie.

Should I worry about cookies?
A cookie is merely a text file stored on your PC - it is not a program that runs or performs any operations by itself. If you double click on a cookie file, you'll see what I mean - the only thng that happens is Notepad opens and displays its contents. The common concern is the idea of an intrusion on privacy.

What are cookies used for?
First party cookies are often used to store your preferences or log in details for a particular web site. The next time you visit the site, it uses the cookie to load your preferences or settings.

Third party cookies are usually used by advertising companies to track a user's activity across multiple sites to gather statistics and ultimately use for marketing purposes or to measure how successful a site is. Broadly speaking, a third party cookie will not gather or transmit personally identifiable information like your name or address.

Prevention or Cure?
Instead of cookies being set on your machine and Ad-Aware removing them, you may prefer that certain cookies are not set in the first place.

You can configure your browser to allow, disallow or allow only certain cookies to be set. I would suggest allowing first party cookies and blocking third party cookies. If you block first party cookies by default you may find a lot of sites unusable until you allow them to be set again.

Instructions for Blocking Cookies Within Your Browser

The configuration I personally use at home blocks third party cookies while allowing first party cookies. This means that sites don't complain that their first party cookies are not set and that my site preferences are retained.

Firefox
Firefox's cookie blocking configuration gives you a lot of choice about how cookies are handled. You can set Firefox to:

1. Accept cookies from sites - this means all cookies (first and third party) will be set
2. Accept no cookies from sites - this means no cookies (first or third party) will be set. If you use this setting, a lot of sites will complain they can't set cookies.
3. Keep cookies until they expire - some cookies are set to expire years from now, rendering this option, well, not useless, but not that useful.
4. Keep cookies until Firefox closes - all cookies will be set, but when you close Firefox, the cookies are deleted. This is a good way to clear cookies, but it will also clear useful ones too, which can be annoying.
5. Ask every time - I use this option at home, but be prepared! If you use this option, Firefox will ask about accepting cookies a lot. I usually allow first party cookies and block non -first party cookies and tick the 'Use my choice for all cookies from this site' so Firefox doesn't hassle me every time I visit that site.

Configuration information: Click on Help -> Help contents and search for 'managing cookies'

Opera
Opera's cookie handling configuration is similar to Firefox's

Configuration information: Click on Help -> Opera Help and search for 'Opera's handling of cookies'

Internet Explorer
Internet Explorer, in my opinion, has a fairly intuitive cookie management interface.

Configuration information: Click on Help -> Contents and Index, then search for 'customize your privacy settings for all Web sites'.

Have fun with your new configuration - experiment to see which one suits you best. And finally, against all odds, I managed to refrain from making a lame cookie joke for the entire article. It wasn't easy though.