How to clean out Internet files

Question: I surf the web a lot. My computer is full of cookies. Should I periodically delete all cookies and temporary Internet items? – WB

Answer: Cleaning out any extraneous data on your computer is always a good idea, just like cleaning out your closets of accumulated household clutter is a good idea.

Being on the Internet a lot is a great way to fill up your hard drive because, whether you know it or not, whether you mean to or not, you’re inviting an enormous amount of data onto your computer from the sites you visit.

For example, Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer both have something called an image cache. That’s a repository for downloaded images and bits of programming, such as shockwave files, preferences, and so on, so that next time you visit that same site, your computer won’t have to download those files again, and the site will load quicker.

Cookies aren’t such space suckers. They are tiny text files, or entries in a text file, that are stored on your hard drive to help websites track your movements through a site. They also record sign-in data and any other site log-on information – when you tell a website that requires a login and password to “remember me”, that site puts a cookie on your hard drive so you won’t have to type your log in every time. Web shopping baskets also use cookies to keep track of what you select to buy so everything you’ve selected is ready and waiting in your electronic shopping cart when you’re ready to check out.

While it may seem objectionable to have your web movements tracked on your own computer, it’s not as insidious as you may think. The web programmers that encode their web pages to put cookies on your computer are the only entities that know that cookies are there. If you visit, let’s say, and it puts a cookie on your machine, then won’t know about that cookie, if you are using the latest Internet browser software.

There have been circumstances where earlier browser versions have had security vulnerabilities. For example, Microsoft had to issue a security patch when it was discovered that IE 5.0 and earlier browsers would allow malicious website operators to gain access to cookies generated by another site and read, add, or change them.

That’s an example of why it’s always a good idea to update a browser when a new version comes out as the updates include new security fixes.

Whenever you delete cookies from your computer, some sites that you visit regularly won’t know who you are the next time you visit (remember what was said above about cookies remembering your login information). If you have provided a specific site with preferences, the deletion of your cookies will destroy this information. Shopping sites use cookies a lot, so if you delete your cookies, you will have to re-enter information you have provided previously, and select “Remember me” (or whatever similar words you see) again. Advertisers always use cookies to keep track of the kind of ads you respond to so that they can provide more targeted material to you. If previously provided, use the user ID and password you were given by the website to identify yourself again. A new cookie entry will be created and you’ll be all set till the next time you delete your cookies.

If you decide to both delete your cookies and clear your cache information, here’s how.

If you simply want a cookie cleaner, see: for Macs, and for PCs. Many of the programs are free.

This cleaning can also be done manually.

  1. In Netscape, search for a file called cookies.txt on a PC, or magiccookie on the Mac, and delete it. It will be re-created and continue to collect cookies, but old cookie info will be wiped away.
  2. In Internet Explorer for Windows, cookies are kept in the Cookies folder. Locate it with the Find (or Search, depending on your version of Windows) function on your Start menu. Each cookie is saved as a single file.

To delete temporary Internet files:

  1. In Internet Explorer, go to the Tools menu, and select Internet Options. Click the Delete Files button.
  2. In Netscape, use the Edit menu to access Preferences. Click the plus sign to expand the Advanced entry in the left window, and select Cache. On the right, click Clear Memory Cache to remove any files from memory for the current web session, and click Clear Disk Cache to empty all the temporary Internet files from the hard drive.