On the 26th of May the dreaded ‘EU cookie law’ comes into force. It was 2009 when the EU directive originally instructed members of the EU to create laws on locally stored files in regard to online privacy – particularly cookies.
Cookies, for those of you who don’t know, are small pieces of textual code which are stored by a user’s browser to identify them and track their online activity – a sort of electronic “tag” that lets websites recognise you. Although that may sound worrying, they are usually just read and stored by websites for the purpose of recording visitor statistics, targeting advertising, storing logins and remembering preference settings. Without them, you’d have to log back into Facebook every time you went back to it.
In an attempt to give online users a greater level of privacy, however, the EU-enforced UK law (applying to websites with a UK-based top level domain or a UK-based target audience) has now made it illegal for website owners to track cookies without a user’s permission. If website owners ignore this they can theoretically, from May this year, be fined up to £500,000.
Selected cookies can be tracked still be tracked without informing the visitor, but the majority, including those used for targeted advertising and visitor statistics, will now require consent.
Although asking visitors for permission (done through a pop-up box or drop down ‘accordion’ bar) on your site sounds like a minor change, experts are predicting it will have an extremely detrimental effect on businesses in the UK, with estimates predicting a loss of up to £10 billion for the UK economy. This figure is calculated from the predicted loss of advertising through a reduction in targeted ads, lost sales from visitors inconvenienced or unwilling to share their cookies, damage to current technology and the migration of online businesses overseas to avoid having to implement the changes. Website analytics businesses, such as Google Analytics, are also going to be hit hard as their products become less relevant.
Issues with the EU cookie law
The Information Commissioner’s Office website itself recorded a 90% drop in the number of tracked visits to its site after it began requesting to record cookies from visitors. This, if reflected in SME websites, can render visitor statistics unrepresentative, making website maintenance and marketing more difficult.
Some believe, due to the large percentage of websites unaware of the law or otherwise unlikely to comply by the 26th of May, that the deadline for fines being imposed may be further extended or at least relaxed (with no prosecutions) for a while. On the contrary, a landmark case may be taken against a website which fails to comply as a means of raising awareness amongst site owners. Nobody quite knows how harsh of an approach is going to be taken.
It’s also been pointed out that heavy web users are likely to be annoyed when faced with disruption from consent forms on almost every website they visit. Many web users won’t be aware what cookies are, so are likely to dismiss pop-ups and notifications – which most sites are likely to class as consent. The EU cookie law is therefore unlikely to protect the very people the law it was intended to.
We could also point out that the only way of knowing whether a visitor has given you permission to store cookies or not is to, er, store a cookie. Clever.
Surely I can turn cookies off on my site?
Most website owners are completely unaware that their site even records cookies. Those that do, and want to switch them off, are often using software which doesn’t allow them do so. If you can turn off cookies you are likely to be limiting the functionality of your site, preventing the recording of visitor statistics which you may need for website marketing. If you don’t have reliable demographic information on visitors to your site, revenue from targeted ads is going to be hit hard.
Well why can’t I just ask permission from visitors?
You can and it is important that you do so. Web specialists such as KPI can advise you on how to notify users in an unobtrusive way, helping you to comply with the law without annoying your customers too much. As of 26th May, UK regulators will have the power to prosecute any website which tracks cookies without permission, so it’s important to organise these implementations as soon as possible.
For more information and assistance on EU cookie law-proofing your website, contact KPI. We’re internet marketing specialists who, up-to-date on the latest technology news and changes, and will be able to keep your website within the law with minimal disruption to visitors.