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23 Aug 2012

The EU Cookie Monster

You may have noticed over the past few months that some websites you’ve visited have asked for your permission to use ‘cookies’. Not to be confused with the American biscuit, a cookie is a small text file that websites use to store data on your computer.

The reason behind these messages is a controversial European Union law which came into force in May. Cookies have been used since an early web browser called Netscape introduced them back in 1994.

By allowing websites to store small amounts of data on your computer, services like online shopping baskets and personalised content can be created easily. The problem is they can also be used for more underhanded purposes, the biggest concern being their use to monitor which websites you visit.

This has sparked fears over privacy, leading to the EU directive which created the new law. The new law has been criticised for being badly thought out.

Technically the law applies to any website aimed at an EU audience; but in practice it is targeting EU hosted websites, giving them a disadvantage over non-EU competitors. However, the biggest issue is how impractical the law is. Websites either have to ignore the law, stop using cookies, or ask for your permission to use cookies.

If a website ignores the law then it is, of course, breaking the law. In theory a website could stop using cookies, but so many web technologies use cookies that this is very difficult to do.

For example, analytics software used by almost every website to monitor user statistics use cookies. The final choice is to have some sort of message or pop-up asking users if they are happy to use cookies.

The problem there is that users hate these types of pop-up messages, and the very users the law is designed to protect - those less savvy about IT - won’t understand what a cookie is anyway.

The reason why you’ve only seen a few of these messages, usually on well-funded and risk averse websites like the BBC's, is because most websites have chosen the first option, to ignore bad legislation.

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