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Unsavory cookies

April 4, 2011

When it comes to cookies, how many are too many? EU regulators want to make sure consumers are aware of ways to protect themselves but experts say it's not looking like much will change in the near-term.

Cookies in front of a computer screen
Online cookies are quite different then a standard dessertImage: Flickr/monkeycat!

Despite what the Cookie Monster might have us believe, not all cookies are good enough to eat.

The European Union is concerned that these little bits of data collected by a Web browser, which inform advertisers of all online users, could be a violation of privacy. A new EU directive will require that websites give clear consent for all cookies by May 25.

However, with the deadline approaching, many questions remain as to how this directive will be implemented and enforced.

Currently, how much information is being gathered is difficult to know, as most users are unaware when their Web browser downloads cookies, what information is gathered and where it is sent to.

Joe McNamee, of the European Digital Rights Initiative, said that few people are aware of this tracking business and how it affects what comes up on the sidebars while surfing.

"Certain products get offered to some people because they fit the profile whereas other people aren't offered the same product," he told Deutsche Welle. "So this is an issue that's becoming more important as profiling and tracking become more pervasive."

An EU pledge

Viviane Reding
Viviane Reding has spearheaded the EU's anti-tracking measuresImage: European Union, 2010

Back in 2009, when now-EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding was in charge of the "information society" portfolio, she seemed to share McNamee's discomfort in a video message she released explaining new electronic privacy laws.

"European privacy rules are crystal clear: a person's information can only be used with their prior consent," she said at the time. "We cannot give up this basic principle, and have all our exchanges monitored, surveyed and stored in exchange for a promise of 'more relevant' advertising."

Reding promised that the commission would closely monitor online rights, but later told the industry that by May 25, it must come up with its own ways to make data tracking more transparent and optional for consumers.

This will not just apply to EU-headquartered companies, but any who have offices across the 27 member state bloc.

However, the planning phase hasn't gone smoothly. Discussion and debate within the advertising industry has centered largely on whether consumers should be asked to opt-in or out of allowing cookies, either in general via a browser setting or by giving permission one by one.

End of an era?

Marketers say having to send a permission-seeking pop-up to surfing shoppers would be disastrous because however people may feel about cookies, they generally hate pop-ups.

hands holding a gift reach out of a computer screen
Cookies are often used to track consumer behavior online, and use very targeted advertising for potential retail salesImage: picture-alliance / dpa / Themendienst

Some companies have complained that if the most restrictive interpretations are implemented, they would move their offices elsewhere. Online marketing consultant Matt Barker, co-creator of British start-up Hitriddle.com, says losing access to cookie data for analyzing online trends would have a significant impact on his business.

"The effect could be profound," Barker told Deutsche Welle. "The thing that makes us competitive, the thing that makes us effective is that we can say 'this is the precise impact that our work is going to have on your business'. We can measure these things down to a tee and the use of cookies is an enormous part of that."

It's not clear what will happen after May 25. A pan-European website, YourOnlineChoices.com has been created to help consumers navigate their options, and an icon has been developed that could be added to websites, though there's no agreement yet on who would be responsible for placing the icon or for educating the public that it even exists.

Beyond that, the directive does not clearly define who that public is - only EU citizens or anyone doing business with a European Union company?

McNamee is unimpressed with this so-called solution and worries that if EU regulators don't demand more, the industry will be allowed to simply muddle along without making any significant changes.

Going it alone

logos for Yahoo and Google
Yahoo and Google are trying to solve the problem themselvesImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

But there are companies who may do it on their own, out of self-interest.

Last month, Yahoo has added a tiny gray button to its UK site called "AdChoices," which allows management of cookies. Google offers a plug-in for a variety of browsers to opt out of advertising cookies.

But there may already be tools that consumers can use to avoid online behavioral tracking, according to Rebecca Jeschke, a spokesperson for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an American Internet advocacy group. She pointed to a a Firefox browser extension called, "Do Not Track," which Jeschke says is complementary to managing cookies manually.

"Anyone who's tried to turn off all the cookies in their browser and surf the internet can find out just how hard it can be," Jeschke said. "The really good thing about Do Not Track is that instead of having to take a really defensive posture, you're putting up a flag and saying do not track me and demanding that websites respect that flag."

Author: Teri Schultz
Editor: Cyrus Farivar