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Think BR: Cookie monsters

Confusion reigns over implementation of the EU cookie directive, writes Martin Greenbank, head of intelligence, Arena Media.

Martin Greenbank, head of intelligence, Arena Media

Martin Greenbank, head of intelligence, Arena Media

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The EU cookie directive finally came into force at the weekend. This, of course, means that UK website owners are required to obtain consent from their users in advance of storing personal browser information which is gathered through small software files known as cookies. 

These files sit on the user’s device, and can track browser interactions, retain log-in details and other preferences relating to a particular website. They can also be used to target advertising based on a user’s previous browser history.

This directive was brought in to unify citizens’ rights across the whole EU and to provide a consistent basis for the protection of an individual’s privacy online. Its interpretation was therefore envisaged to be in the interests of the public, but has caused a high degree of uncertainty about what website owners should do in order to comply.

Unsurprisingly, this is a story which was carried by all the national press and became a news item across most public facing media due to concerns over data protection and an individual’s right to privacy.

What is interesting to us is that their online editions demonstrate the full range of interpretation of this law. Amazingly, some of the titles appear to have interpreted the law as a 'do nothing', in direct contravention to the spirit of the directive they write about and something that is bound to attract attention given the huge traffic numbers these websites attract.

While the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) watered down the proposals 48 hours prior to the directive coming into force - allowing websites to adopt implied user consent to cookies - confusion still reigns as to what is good and bad practice.

A quick audit of the national press online sites showed us some stark contrasts:

  • The Financial Times won’t let you view the content unless you acknowledge their cookie policy.
  • The Telegraph and Mirror both opt for a pop-up to the side of the editorial, which invites you investigate their policy.
  • The Times and the Sun use a more subtle overlay at the foot of the visible page, which requires a user interaction to turn off.
  • The Guardian tackles the issue with an unobtrusive banner link below its masthead.
  • The Daily Mail, Express and Daily Star appear to take zero action, hiding the cookie information among the small print T&C links at the foot of the page.

So who is compliant?

Well the question may be 'who is most compliant?’ as interpretation of the law is now fuzzy at best.

The issue of implied consent appears to be covered by all the titles so long as they include information on the use of cookies somewhere on their website.

However, the do nothing approach of the Daily Mail, Express and Daily Star could see them singled out as their inaction contravenes the spirit of the law.

Effectively we are seeing a mess out there and confusion reigns. Importantly, the ICO’s intervention has probably delayed the threatened clampdown on non-compliance.

Charles Arthur wrote in the Guardian this weekend that the ICO’s intervention has probably shifted the focus onto "whether this puts the UK out of step with Brussels, and most other EU states", rather than if individual websites are compliant.

Even if this is not the case, with the current upheaval at board room and editorial level within the newspaper industry, it is probably an issue which will be conveniently ignored for the time being.

If the largest media sites cannot get this right, then what hope is there for the millions of smaller organisations out there?

 Martin Greenbank, head of intelligence, Arena Media

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