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Alec Sharratt

E-Privacy Directive on Cookies

20th Apr 2011 News, Industry News, Paid Search, SEO, Social Media | 3 Comments


As many of you will have heard, in just a few weeks (25th May) the giant nanny state of Europe is to cough forth a law on the use of cookies, one of 3,000 laws generated each year by the EU. If you use Pay Per Click advertising or if you use Google Analytics you will fall under the jurisdiction of this new law, in fact nearly all European websites will be effected. In fact anyone who advertises in Europe will be affected by them.

So what is it?

Well the new directive stipulates that explicit consent must be gained from every site visitor in order to install cookies on the visitor’s computer. That is being interpreted by most people as requiring some sort of pop up style consent form that asks visitors if they agree to allow specific cookies to be installed.

And what is the Impact?

This is a debatable area at the moment; largely because currently there are no guidelines on how consent will be gained. So as of the 25th May there will be no impact on digital marketing, in fact the impotence of this law is so profound that the EU commission who have made this law have said that no-one needs to act on it yet!

Of course this grace period will not last forever and at some point they will have to implement two things; firstly a set of guidelines dictating what is an acceptable form of gaining consent, and secondly a way of effectively policing it. It is still unclear whether consent will be required for every single cookie used or whether a catch-all consent form will be permissible.

In order to understand the impact of this directive more lets first look at what a cookie is…

What is a cookie?

Wikipedia defines a cookie as the following “A cookie, also known as a web cookie, browser cookie, and HTTP cookie, is a piece of text stored on a user’s computer by their web browser. A cookie can be used for authentication, storing site preferences, shopping cart contents, the identifier for a server-based session, or anything else that can be accomplished through storing text data.”

Cookies essentially track and store information, they are not programmes as such, they are not viruses; but it is this storing of information that underpins the very purpose of the law and the motivations behind those campaigning for it to be implemented.

So why is this law being implemented?

Groups of campaigners for privacy are up in arms at the ability of the web to store personal information about them, track their internet usage and advertise to them based on this. In fact behavioural advertising has become one of the chief phrases wielded like a dirty word and used as a weapon against the ‘evil’ advertisers.

Personally I believe that a combination of misunderstanding and general ignorance is the root cause of this problem. As with many scientific and technological endeavours people hear the hype but rarely hang around to read the white paper afterwards. The Hadron collider in CERN is a great example of media and scaremongering; with many people who still actually believe that they could cause a black hole and destroy either the planet or the universe… great story but sadly just not true.

Behavioural advertising has got a bad name for itself, adverts that ‘follow you’, using your ‘personal information’, to ‘track you’ and force adverts down your throat! Is it me or has anyone else noticed the occasional advert here and there…

Seen any Adverts Today?

I see adverts on billboards, in newspapers, in subway stations, on bus stops, in magazines, between TV shows, before films on DVD’s, product placement in the TV shows and films. I see adverts on trainers, clothes, in every shop window, on every high street, on posters and flyers, on cups, I’ve seen adverts on websites, on search engines, I see adverts from sponsors at conferences and festivals, on every product I buy. Religious people knock my door advertising their particular belief or deity, I’ve seen advertising written in the sky with smoke or lasers, giant balloons with flashing lights selling cheap cars, I hear adverts all the way to work on the radio.

I think I have made my point; the only way to avoid advertising is to close your eyes and hold your hands over your ears. Advertising is everywhere and the more technology we develop the more advanced the method of communicating the message “buy my products”. So what separates behavioural advertising and makes it so unacceptable? Personally out of all of the advertising I see I prefer advertising that makes an attempt at being relevant to my interests.

If you go to the cinema and watch a horror film, in all likelihood the cinema will advertise other films that are of a similar rating and of a similar genre. This is behavioural advertising, they know that you like horror films and so they advertise other horror films to you. And while you are sat there watching an advert aimed at you based on known personal information you are holding a ticket with text on it much like a cookie.

To sum up my point on advertising, you will be advertised to until people run out of products and services to sell. Whether that is targeted behaviour based advertising or a blanket campaign with no relevance to you or your interests, the only thing that will change is the method with which the advert is delivered to your consciousness.

How personal is the information stored in cookies?

I think that this is a good question because how personal the information is depends on a number of factors; for instance if a website stores your password so that you don’t have to re-type it when you next log on it is quite secret information… If it’s what pages of a website you have visited and what products you bought, is it really that personal? Who uses this information? The people who collect it is the answer. So if you visit a website and buy some shoes that same company might use that information to advertise shoes to you on another website. Websites are not collecting information extraneous to your online activity.

This information in most cases is used by companies to help manage their online presence, by evaluating visitor trends, by offering products (like Amazon) that other people bought and that you may be interested in. There is a limit to what companies can do with this information, and there are already laws in place to protect your rights in terms of identity fraud or passing information onto third parties.

How to Stop Cookies on your computer

If you have read this and are disgusted that companies can store personal information about you on your computer and want to bring it all to a juddering halt, there is good news. You do not have to wait for the whole internet to change its ways, no, simply set your internet browsers security settings to restrict the use of cookies and voila no more cookies!

Yes that is right; you and everyone else already consented to allow cookies to be installed on your computer when you set it up for the first time. This personal control over your information is in your hands, though it seems that for the campaigners lobbying for change this is not nearly enough. What if people do not know how to change their browser settings, computers are confusing and complicated! Granted not everyone has the knowledge to set privacy settings on their computer… My question is should this mean that the whole online community should change in order to circumvent the ignorance of some web surfers?

Alternatives to Cookies

There are already other alternatives to cookies, given the commercial demand for an alternative should the law become enforced, how long will it be before we are all having to delete Local Shared objects (LSO’s) from our computers? In fact cookies are pretty inefficient methods for tracking purposes because people often delete them. A recent study showed that 40% of web users clear cookies from their machines on a regular basis.

So alternatives are already in use. As previously mentioned LSO’s are one alternative, they act like cookies, they store information locally on your computer and are  not affected by the same settings as cookies. Technology never stands still and as the demand for data drives businesses to develop new methods of hoarding and storing information, so does the demand for privacy drive the security settings of internet browsers.

This law prohibits the use of a specific technology which could be dropped and replaced for a more malicious and invasive technology instantly, with the motivation being literally billions of £’s of online sales at stake.

The blunting of a competitive edge

By enforcing these regulations, the impact will directly affect company’s ability to compete against our American and Asian competitors. It will also reduce the amount of data they have to guide their business decisions, optimise their websites and target pay per click advertising. The trade off is that there will be greater transparency for how companies use this data for the consumer. To my way of thinking these should be balanced, if the result is as the IAB (Internet Advertising Bureau) suggest, which is that it “is potentially detrimental to consumers, business and the UK digital economy” I am not convinced there is balance here.

In a recession and global economic decline do we really need prohibitive laws that hinder business and weaken economies?

Summary

Given that this law exists to protect information that is very limited in its value to whom it concerns, and given that it is already possible to completely protect oneself against tracking cookies; coupled with the impact this will have on businesses, I can only surmise that this law is nothing but damaging and doesn’t really address the problem in an effective manner.

With all the problems in the world today it seems like a particularly tragic waste of tax payer’s money to fund the creation of laws that aren’t enforced or enforceable. Especially when the reason for doing so seems to be to protect the rather petty privileges of a few people who already have the power to protect their personal information.

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Alec Sharratt About the author

Alec Sharratt

Alec Sharratt will be writing about his passion; the technical aspects of search. Well experienced within the IT industry, Alec has bags of knowledge on everything technical from simple spreadsheets that will save you hours right up to news and tips to make search that little bit easier.

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