Companies that sell advertisements online - including Microsoft - can electronically gather tidbits about Web surfers' habits, and then use that information to help decide what kinds of ads to show. However, in the newest "beta" test version of Microsoft's forthcoming Internet Explorer 8, a mode called InPrivateBrowsing lets users surf without having a list of sites they visit get stored on their computers.
The program also covers other footprints, including temporary Internet files and cookies, the small data files that Web sites put on visitors' computers to track their activities.
Both Internet Explorer 7, Microsoft's current browser, and Mozilla's recently released Firefox 3, already allow users to block cookies. The top two browsers also let users delete private information such as temporary files and browsing history after the fact. But they can't turn off that collection entirely.
The beta also introduces an additional InPrivateBlocking mode, which can block third-party content from appearing on Web sites. For example, a news site might weather information from another. Companies that provide such content may also be collecting and sharing information about what people do online. But users who turn on InPrivateBlocking won't see that content or be exposed to such data collection without their consent.
InPrivateBlocking can also keep some types of ads from appearing - including those served up by Microsoft's own advertising platform, whose success is considered critical to the software maker's future.
If InPrivateBlocking were widely adopted by IE8 users, small sites that rely almost exclusively on outside companies to serve ads couldn't survive.
IE8 has also improved the address bar's ability to figure out users' intended Web destination as they type.
An improved search box also provides more content alongside suggested results. For example, an Amazon.com search for an music album, entered in the browser toolbar, populates a drop-down menu with titles, prices and thumbnails of cover art.
A "Compatibility View" button placed on the address bar enables users to display websites that were designed for older browsers.
Microsoft also updated already announced features such as "Activities," which allows a user to use information found on one page, such as an address, in conjunction with an online service such as mapping without leaving the original site.
Microsoft would not say when it plans to release a final version of the newest browser, but said this second beta is ready for average users to try. The latest beta release of Internet Explorer 8 is available for download at www.microsoft.com/ie8.