Warnings Made to Be Ignored

Fortune CookieIf you’ve visited other parts of the internet besides this blog, you will have noticed lots of websites displaying messages about cookies. The messages vary, but most either ask you click something to agree to these cookies, or tell you that you are agreeing if you continue.

We are all now routinely alerted to this issue and most people don’t understand the consequences. If you find it intrusive when adverts follow you round the internet, you should know that this practice, called “retargeting”, normally depends on cookies that can’t legally be used without your consent.

Here’s how this strange situation arose:

  • In 1994, a technical feature was added to web browsers to let websites to store information
  • Websites used this feature for many purposes, most of which were innocuous
  • Some companies used this feature to track users covertly in order to make advertising more profitable
  • In 2009, the EU issued a directive to tackle this problem by requiring member countries to stop most cookies (including some innocuous ones) being used without consent
  • In 2011, the UK implemented this directive in its own law, putting the Information Commissioner in charge of enforcement
  • The Information Commissioner’s Office didn’t immediately comply with the law itself
  • Most websites didn’t stop using cookies, but they added banners and popup messages, making users aware of the cookies and asking for consent
  • Companies made more and more intrusive use of cookies for adverts, including the ones that follow you round the internet

For many companies, the use of cookies is an important tool which serves their commercial interests. They are widely used to track the pages that each person visits. They are again used to recognise a visitor if they leave and return. Understanding the way visitors use a website helps the company to improve the site, making it better suit the organisational aims and thereby increasing profits. This understanding can be achieved very cheaply and efficiently using cookies.

Cookies can be used for many other purposes, ranging from remembering website preferences through to identifying surveillance targets.

So if a website uses cookies, must it ask permission first, or is it okay to use them and then ask for forgiveness? The Information Commissioner’s own guidance¬†explains that, “It is difficult to see that a good argument could be made” for setting the cookies before requesting consent. But setting cookies before requesting consent is exactly what the Information Commissioner’s own website does. If you visit their website for the first time today, your browser will store a few cookies and then display a warning message. The warning gives you the option to “Turn cookies off”, and this removes most of them, leaving behind one cookie to remember you have switched them off.

This blog doesn’t use cookies and our main website only uses one, when it is strictly necessary to enable you to log in. We advertise but we don’t follow you round the internet: so, if you’d like to see us again, please come back and visit.

Steven Tucker

By Steven Tucker - Co-founder

Steven is one of the founders of The Payroll Site. He writes about things affecting small businesses, especially those things connected with payroll. He's also a Maths graduate and a Chartered IT Professional and has a few views about technology, maths and the misuse of both.