Blog | EU Cookie Law

10th October 2013

You may have heard about EU Cookie Directive and the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office) plans to police the use of cookies on websites in the UK. You may even know what a cookie is. But are you aware of the multitude of cookies, their usage and how it affects your privacy?cookie law

Do you know your cookies?

The majority of internet users probably don’t know what a cookie is and does and would thus be immediately worried by suggestions of anti-privacy or tracking. There are many different types of cookie – some fundamental, some desirable and some that can be misused and it is important that the latter are regulated.

A cookie is a small text file stored on your computer to remember things about your web visit. At this point you are probably more curious than scared. Certain cookies must be used in order to remember what you have added to your basket on an eCommerce site, or how you have filtered your search criteria – ok so maybe they are essential after all. Other cookies can be used for analytics software and to understand where a visitor went on the website, what they searched for, what they clicked and didn’t click, with all this knowledge being used to improve the customer experience. Naturally some people will baulk at this form of tracking but I am very careful to say ‘a visitor’ there as analytics programs do not know your name, date of birth or height – it is purely anonymous data.

Finally cookies can also be used to identify you/your computer between websites. Have you ever visited a holiday website and searched for villas in Portugal only to be completely distracted and leave without making a booking? The following day you log on to check your Hotmail, or look at a clothes website, or read the sports news only to be shown adverts displaying the latest Portugal villa deals?

These are the cookies that I believe the ICO want you to opt IN to.  And I believe they are right to suggest so.

Pros and cons of cookie tracking

As a digital business, our opinion of this cookie law is divided. Not because of a lack of concern for or knowledge of the topic, but indeed the heavy weight of arguments for and against their use. I personally HATE the idea of being tracked online. Facebook is a necessary evil for me – I feel that I must stay registered so I can maintain informed conversations with my clients about its potential – and yet I hate all of these integrations and ‘log in using Facebook’ buttons because I know it allows companies to see my interests and sell to me accordingly. I also hate Facebook for maintaining a database of  knowledge about me and my friends – I patently refuse to allow my mates to ‘check me in’ at places for fear of getting burgled!

Benefits

Yet from a marketers’ point of view, it’s amazing to know who has opened the latest email campaign, or what cars Customer A has added to their wish-list – as it enables my client to market relevant items to that person and not bore them with irrelevant rubbish. Isn’t that a better world for everyone – when you can ‘skip’ the adverts you have no interest in?

The ICO – in its defence of consumer’s privacy rights – largely dismissed these genuine calls for alarm from the web industry when trying to push through the legislation which became law on 26 May 2012. The more digitally-educated marketing industry knows that consumers dislike constant pop-ups and that a request for Cookie Authorisation on every website would seriously damage the browsing user experience.

Drawbacks

Whilst many advertisers would still argue that they are still trying to provide a personalised service, removing irrelevance and improving ‘your digital world’, I would suggest that there might be a reason I didn’t book a villa in Portugal and that I don’t want reminding thank you very much. I certainly don’t like the idea that my (computer’s) “preference for the Algarve” may be used by other people and organisations.

If this EU directive must come into force, there are certainly better ways to implement it. Another headache is that felt by small website owners who barely know themselves what a cookie is or does and rely on (often costly) web development firms to sort the issue out. Thankfully web development organisations such as CookieQ are investigating more obvious opt-in snippets that are less hard work for web site owners to implement.

When considering the good reasoning behind this directive, it is interesting to note that several Government websites also managed to miss the deadline. Only 24 hours before the 26 May deadline the rules seemed to change to allow implied consent – that is, opt OUT – and many major retailers such as Next and John Lewis were instead able to offered advice to customers on how to turn their cookies off using their browser. This stops the constant bombardment of pop-up messages but still allows customers to define their own privacy rights.

Education – not retribution – is key

One thing is for sure – education of the general public is crucial so that conniving, megalomaniac advertisers don’t get a stranglehold on our data. Yet education isn’t often best served with a severe rap to the knuckles as the EU has seen it so far.

Adam Pritchard

Lead contact for many of our delightful clients, Adam has nearly 15 years of digital experience, from the days of getting 3M and Pioneer UK web-friendly, to leading project teams on development and marketing projects for the likes of Tesco, Royal College of Nursing and National Tyres. Secretary of junior football club Winton Wanderers, most of the weekend is spent coaching kids, or reading the Sunday papers with coffee and cake.