What’s In a
An Internet cookie is a tiny bundle of text in a file that a website stores on your computer via your browser. It isn’t malicious by nature, it’s merely a functional record of some of the data associated with your machine’s hardware and capabilities. It can also be used to let the site know that you’ve visited it recently, enabling handy features like keeping you logged into a website after you’ve navigated away, or storing your viewing preferences for a later visit.
This isn’t exactly an invasion of your privacy, in the strictest sense—cookies don’t contain things like your name or email address, unless a site is unwise enough to put them there—but the data is specific enough to make a lot of people uncomfortable.
The European Union’s Stance on Cookies
In 2002, the European Union codified the Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications. Among many other guidelines, the directive stated that websites had to obtain users’ permission before storing information in a local cookie file, and inform users of what that data would be used for. Since cookies are used in so many different websites for a lot of different reasons, it meant that most of the major websites and services based in the member states of the European Union had to put up a “cookie warning” to continue their basic functions.
Most website managers and content creators seem to view the mandatory cookie warnings as a nuisance and a waste of time. It’s kind of like a security camera that has to blast “I’m watching your movements now!” on a loudspeaker every time you walk by. Yeah, cookies can be used to do some rather shady things with your information on the web, but they’re also a fairly fundamental part of how the web itself works now. Forcing users to see and acknowledge a warning on almost every site hosted in the European Union seems redundant and altogether unhelpful.
The End of Cookie Warnings Might Be Near
EU websites and users have had to deal with cookie warnings for over a decade now, and based on personal experience with those who have to handle the production side, nobody’s happy with the mildly annoying status quo. But there’s hope for a less-cluttered future for the European web. A newly-proposed update to the original law would make banners obsolete and unnecessary, by forcing websites to read and respect a browser setting that forbids cookie-based tracking. It would also force websites to get explicit consent before initiating cookie-based tracking, meaning the current “FYI” informational banners wouldn’t be necessary unless the website was looking to do specific tracking.
The proposal isn’t a shoo-in: technical changes would make it more difficult for websites to offer conveniences like remembering a login session or a shopping cart. Websites could also face a significant loss in relatively easy advertising revenue, something that lobbyists are sure to bring before the European Commission as the body considers the proposal. If the update were to be approved, it would take effect in May 2018, along with a host of other privacy laws.