History Behind Cookies

Background Of Cookies

Magic cookies were already used in computing when computer programmer Lou Montulli had the idea of using them in web communications in June 1994. At the time, he was an employee of Netscape Communications, which was developing an e-commerce application for MCI. Vint Cerf and John Klensin represented MCI in technical discussions with Netscape Communications. MCI did not want its servers to have to retain partial transaction states, which led them to ask Netscape to find a way to store that state in each user's computer instead. Cookies provided a solution to the problem of reliably implementing a virtual shopping cart.

Together with John Giannandrea, Montulli wrote the initial Netscape cookie specification the same year. Version 0.9beta of Mosaic Netscape, released on October 13, 1994, supported cookies. The first use of cookies (out of the labs) was checking whether visitors to the Netscape website had already visited the site. Montulli applied for a patent for the cookie technology in 1995, and US 5774670 was granted in 1998. Support for cookies was integrated in Internet Explorer in version 2, released in October 1995.

The introduction of cookies was not widely known to the public at the time. In particular, cookies were accepted by default, and users were not notified of their presence. The general public learned about cookies after the Financial Times published an article about them on February 12, 1996. In the same year, cookies received a lot of media attention, especially because of potential privacy implications. Cookies were discussed in two U.S. Federal Trade Commission hearings in 1996 and 1997.

The development of the formal cookie specifications was already ongoing. In particular, the first discussions about a formal specification started in April 1995 on the www-talk mailing list. A special working group within the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) was formed. Two alternative proposals for introducing state in HTTP transactions had been proposed by Brian Behlendorf and David Kristol respectively. But the group, headed by Kristol himself and Lou Montulli, soon decided to use the Netscape specification as a starting point. In February 1996, the working group identified third-party cookies as a considerable privacy threat. The specification produced by the group was eventually published as RFC 2109 in February 1997. It specifies that third-party cookies were either not allowed at all, or at least not enabled by default.

At this time, advertising companies were already using third-party cookies. The recommendation about third-party cookies of RFC 2109 was not followed by Netscape and Internet Explorer. RFC 2109 was superseded by RFC 2965 in October 2000.

RFC 2965 added a Set-Cookie2 header, which informally came to be called "RFC 2965-style cookies" as opposed to the original Set-Cookie header which was called "Netscape-style cookies". Set-Cookie2 was seldom used however, and was deprecated in RFC 6265 in April 2011 which was written as a definitive specification for cookies as used in the real world.

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