EU Cookie Law 2012

On the 26th of May, a new law came into force regarding cookie usage. This law will have an effect on almost every type of website, in particular ecommerce and blogs. Depending on how you use the internet, there are a number of questions that you may have.

So, what are cookies?

The cookie law or more accurately The EU Directive on Privacy relates to cookie usage. Most website owners (and also for the most part, people browsing sites) won’t normally pay attention to a technical element such as this. In summary, a cookie is something your web browser uses to store information about your web-site viewing. This may be to remember that you have “logged in” to a site, items in your shopping cart or simply track the pages that you have looked at on the site.

What is the new law trying to achieve?

The new law aims to protect the privacy of someone visiting a website. It does this by requiring that a site asks visitors for consent before storing certain cookie data.

Everyone has their web behaviour recorded to some extent. Some cookie usage is required for certain websites to work. Shopping sites (such as Amazon and Play) and email systems (such as Hotmail, Yahoo and Google mail) require cookies to operate. This is how they know that you are allowed to login to your account and / or keep a track of the items that you put into your basket.

Some companies also use cookie data as a way of targeting sales of goods and services. Most people will at some point have noticed that after searching for a particular product or service online - let’s say a particular brand of LCD television - that banner adverts on other sites become focussed on a similar (if not the same) Television. In some cases, this can feel like an invasion of privacy, or make the visitor feel vulnerable (as if “big brother” is watching). 

Does the law affect me?

If your website is hosted in Europe then the answer is YES. The law sees it as your duty to find out how your website uses cookies and ensure that systems are in place to meet the criteria set out. The directive states that youneed to gain the visitors consent BEFORE using the cookies in question.

If you use tools such as Google Analytics, and links to sites such as Facebook and Twitter, then you will need consent from the visitor before storing the required cookies in their browser. The only cookies that do not require consent from the visitor are those required to fulfil the user's needs. For example "shopping cart contents".

What are the guidelines set out in the law?

Confusingly, the new directive does not set out a clearly defined process for webmasters or store owners to follow. Instead, they lay down a firm law which states that any website using the cookies in question requires clear visitor consent before storing the data. Anyone not following these rules can be fined up to £500,000.

This means that as a user enters your website they will have either a popup asking for consent or have a warning panel display on the website which will not disappear until the user has given consent. This has caused outrage as it seems unfeasible for every website to follow this solution. Perhaps more importantly, as a visitor it will become unpractical and highly irritating to surf the web. The only way as a visitor to surf the web without lengthy delays in reading pages of small print will be to accept the cookies usage policy quickly in order to browse the site. As is the norm for this scenario, it will become second nature and visitors will quickly become de-sensitized to the warnings. In turn cookies will be accepted exactly as they have been.

The new law does not protect the visitor in a practical online environment. Instead it punishes store owners and webmasters in an already stressful economic time.

How will the restriction on cookies affect my website?

Although the new law comes without a clear cut process for owners and / or webmasters to follow, there are three possible approaches that can be taken:

1. A warning message before the visitor enters the website. 
This will cause huge bounce rates where visitors click back and leave the website.

2. A warning message that does not go away until you accept it. 
This will also increase bounce rates, and will restrict how the website performs.

3. A status bar that displays the type of cookies set currently. 
This is the least intrusive but will still deter visitors and limit functionality.

As you can understand, all of the above may have drastic effects to the number of visitors and successful shoppers on websites. Tools such as Google Analytics and other tracking software will become useless and the functionality of the website will be impeded.

What do we do?

Even though the law is now in force many people are not yet aware of it. This is because almost every webmaster has been waiting to see what everyone else is going to do. If you look at a number of blue chip companies - Debenhams, House of Frasier, Pandora, Boots etc. then you can see they haven’t implemented any of the three approaches to becoming compliant. Instead they have setup dedicated pages for users to read more about cookies, along with information how the website uses cookies and how you can change these settings in your browser. 

The new ruling states that visitors must opt in to use cookies, and although this method does not follow the words to the letter, it is a practical and immediate step that can be taken. 

We know that this isn't the final step to compliance, but it is a necessary step to prove that we are aware of the law and have taken responsible measures towards compliancy. 

If the law continues to put pressure on webmasters and website owners then further / more practical solutions will become clearer, where we can again advise you on the correct action to take.

In summary, there are four options available at this stage:

1.     A warning message before the visitor enters the website

2.       A warning message that does not go away until you accept it

3.       A status bar that displays the type of cookies set currently

4.       A dedicated page outlining how the site uses cookies