We all wear pants
The so-called "cookie law" of 2012 caused a lot of web-upheaval but was largely ineffective. A new regulation being cooked up by the European parliament offers much better consumer protection, but is struggling against the advertising lobby.
Back in 2012, the UK, along with the rest of the EU, introduced the website tracking regulations. To call it a cookie law was a misnomer because it applied to all forms of online tracking technologies, not just cookies. Another common misconception was that this law applied to all cookies, when in fact the wording of the law was clear that it only applied when cookies were used as invasive tracking mechanisms, not for genuine functionality such as compiling a shopping basket.
Whilst the law was a well intentioned attempt to protect privacy, that websites must not engage in individual tracking and profiling without explicit consent from the user, the wording of the law was poor. Ever since that law was introduced, we have had websites which pop up annoying prompts informing the visitor that the website uses a cookie wall and the visitor must accept tracking cookies and leave their privacy at the door in order to access the service.
Usually there is no option to withhold consent, or to limit what the site can do with the personal information it collects about you or how long it can hold it for. I have just checked the cookies on my machine from today's browsing, and in the worst case, one UK website has set a tracking cookie which will not expire for 70 years, (assuming my computer lasts that long). If you don't agree to this, you simply cannot use the website.
The 2012 law does not empower the user in any way. It has simply legitimised tracking, which is more prevalent than ever. The issue of tracking and profiling is well explained in this video by a Canadian Consumer Rights organisation:
However, updated ePrivacy Rules going through the EU Parliament may recover some of our privacy, although the legislation faces a tough fight. The portion which affects the cookie law are that, under the new ePrivacy Rules, websites and apps operating in the EU must allow visitors to use the service even if they opt out of tracking, much like a supermarket must accept you as a customer whether or not you are signed up to their Loyalty Card program, and cinemas must accept you as a customer whether or not you give them your mobile phone number on the way in for marketing purposes.
A second refinement is that websites must make it easier for users to give and withdraw consent by respecting browser settings. Currently, most browsers can set a Do Not Track flag, but the advertising industry chooses to ignore it.
Central to the opposition argument is that if these rules are implemented, it will amount to websites being forced to give away content for free, that it will stifle innovation, and drive talented web developers to the USA where no such restrictions on privacy invasion exist. Opponents even argue that preventing websites collecting as much data as possible on visitors would hit company funding, especially for start-ups. This is one of the doomsday scenario propaganda videos created by opponents of the ePrivacy rules.
This is a deliberately misleading set of arguments. Websites offering genuine content will not be prohibited from advertising. It is perfectly possible to advertise products relevant to the website's target audience without needing to track individual's personal web surfing habits, just like traditional paper magazines do. All the adbrokers need to do is sell adverts which are relevant to the subject matter, rather than trying to track my age, sex, skin colour, social status, car and home ownership, business involvement, political, religious, and sexual preferences, who my friends are, what brand of cat food my cat eats, and God knows what else, and selling that information to the highest bidder. Treat us like customers, treat us like human beings, not a commodity to be bought and sold.
It is also possible for websites with genuine original content to offer alternatives such as subscription models, and there are a great many more websites which have no need to be engaged in tracking and profiling at all.
One interesting question is whether the ePrivacy legislation would affect a post-Brexit Britain? It could well become a requirement simply because it may be passed into law before Britain has formally left the EU. In fact, regardless of the respective timetables, I expect, and hope, the UK would want to mirror EU regulations as part of a process of smoothing out obstacles to trade.
26th October 2017
This article comes from the SKILLZONE email newsletter, published monthly since January 2008, and covering topics related to technology and the internet. All articles and artwork in the SKILLZONE newsletter are orignal content. If you would like to receive the newsletter direct to your inbox each month, please SUBSCRIBE here. It is free, and you don't get added to any other mailing lists. It uses best-practice confirmed opt-in only, and you may unsubscribe at any time.