Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Cookie ban takes the biscuit

Most small businesses don't yet realise it, and even quite a few large ones, but there is an EU Directive that will affect the majority of commercial websites. As of 25th May this year, it will become illegal for a website to set a cookie on a visitor's computer without their explicit prior consent.

Cookies, for those who aren't technical, are small text files which a website stores on your computer so that it can help improve the experience of your visit. All major websites use them; any website with a user login facility will use them. Blogs use them. Websites which serve adverts based on site content or browsing history of the user depend on them. If you don't use cookies, your browsing experience will be the poorer - try disabling cookies in your browser tools and see what the result looks like.

So what is the EU trying to achieve? Well, some unsalubrious web sites are using cookies for unethical purposes, and the powers that be are trying to curb such behaviour. This is clearly however a sledgehammer to crack a nut. There has been no consideration by the lawmakers as to how a website can actually gain the required user consent, and it will not always be straightforward - some careful code will need to be written in many cases.

The UK body responsible for drawing up guidelines as to how businesses should comply is the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). They published an impact assessment last September which included this section titled "What are the policy objectives?":

"The aim of the E-Privacy Directive is to ensure that consumers have the opportunity to given specific and informed consent to the placing of cookies or other information on their equipment. This will have the effect of ensuring that they are more aware of the use of such technology by the websites they visit, and so are able to use the internet with more confidence."

It is hard to see how this statement could be less meaningful.

A spokesman recently said that work on the regulations was “ongoing” but would not be complete by 25 May. The minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey, said he appreciated that the delay would “cause uncertainty for businesses and consumers”. It is clear that the Government not only has no guidelines, but no real idea yet how to police the new regulation.

So what does this mean for the average small business website?

If your website is built with a popular content management system such as Wordpress or Joomla then it certainly uses cookies. Neither Wordpress nor Joomla have yet commented as to how they will change their products to make them conform to the new regulation, and it looks highly unlikely that any changes will be made before 25th May.

The best strategy for a small business at present is therefore to keep an eye on how this develops and wait for Government guidance. The Government cannot really afford to be seen to be loading any onerous requirement for web site developments onto small businesses given their declared support for them.

Your site may thus become technically illegal, but at least no-one is likely to police it!

For more about this directive see these news stories:
www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-12668552
www.guardian.co.uk/media-tech-law/eprivacy-cookies

For more information about cookies, see:
www.allaboutcookies.org/cookies/