EU telecoms reform eliminates uncertainty over internet cookies

25 Nov 2009

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The new provisions in the European Union Telecoms Reform Package are being welcomed by publishers and the digital advertising industry because they provide a solid legal basis for cookie-management tools in browsers and other apps.

Cookies ensure the internet functions effectively by storing a user’s settings, such as language preferences or authentication, shopping cart contents, and other data used by websites, to improve and customise their content and advertising to user preferences.

The European Parliament rejected its earlier opt-in amendment for cookies that would have disrupted people’s internet experience, by requiring repeated pop-up windows, or other intrusive virtual labels upon every web page a person visits.

Safeguards regarding web surfers

In its Article 5(3), the ePrivacy Directive outlines strong safeguards to protect internet users from unwanted software, such as adware, junk, or even viruses and spyware, requiring software vendors to seek their consent.

For cookies, the legislation’s preamble specifically says that the control settings in a web browser such as Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome, Opera or Safari are sufficient to comply with the consent requirement in the legislation.

Even for cookies that cannot be controlled by web browsers, the new law recognises that the settings of specific control panels satisfy the consent requirement.

The preamble also gives greater emphasis to the need for clear and comprehensive information to users, in user-friendly ways. By providing transparent information about cookies, users will be in a position to make informed choices; for example by managing their use of cookies via browser settings.

Regarding cookies

The law now clarifies that websites can rely on browser controls and similar applications to define the acceptance of cookies. Publishers and online marketers support this approach because greater transparency, user-friendly information and easy cookies-management will increase consumer trust and confidence.

“The EU legislator kept the existing opt-out regime for cookies and improved it to the benefit of internet users. Importantly, business now has a solid legal basis to rely on the browser settings when deploying cookies. This recognises the established practice that web users set their cookie preferences in their settings managers,” said Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) Europe vice-president Kimon Zorbas.

“The amendment increases consumer protection while not impeding the way the internet works. The majority of the Parliament recognised the importance of the internet and digital advertising for the future of publishing,” said Angela Mills Wade, EPC executive director.

Time frame

Member States must transpose the directive into national law in the next 18 months.

They must do so with great care so as to avoid incorrect implementation under local law, explained Stephen Noller, CEO of nugg.ad and IAB Europe chair of the policy committee.

“National legislators need to make sure that the law is transposed coherently and in a harmonised manner. If not, we risk different interpretations that would create new barriers to the internal market, confuse consumers and ultimately place Europe at a competitive disadvantage to other global markets,” said Noller.

Just what are cookies, anyway?

Cookies are small pieces of text, stored on a user’s computer by a web browser. They are used by almost every website and are the backbone of the modern internet as websites use a lot of embedded content and services, such as widgets from third-party providers.

Major browsers and similar applications allow users to control cookies by specifying when and which cookies to accept and to delete. With Point 66 of the new preamble in the ePrivacy directive, the legislator recognised that special rules for cookies were warranted to avoid significant disruptions of the user’s experience.

The ePrivacy Directive is part of the Telecom Package – a general review of the rules governing electronic communications. The package provides for the establishment of a new EU telecoms authority, rules to spur competition in telecommunication, a review of radio-spectrum management and a range of consumer protection and privacy measures.

By John Kennedy

Photo: The European Parliament rejected its earlier opt-in amendment for cookies that would have disrupted people’s internet experience, by requiring pop-up windows or other intrusive virtual labels upon every web page a person visits.

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com