Cookies - why all the fuss?

If you've been browsing the web recently (and who hasn't?), you may have noticed that more and more websites now have some kind of cookie warning when you first visit the site. It may be a banner across the top, a pop-over window that greys out the background content, or a more discreet tab in the bottom corner. These cookie warnings will usually ask you to accept or decline the use of cookies.

Website cookies
Website cookies

What are cookies?

Cookies are small text files placed on your computer by websites. These cookies are usually harmless and store information like the contents of your shopping cart or your login details to keep you from having to log in on each page.

Cookies are often required for a website to function properly ("essential" cookies), but others, such as tracking cookies don't effect the functionality ("non-essential").

The Cookie Law

On 26th May 2011, the EU announced the new cookie law. The new law came about due to privacy concerns and was thought to be a response to the rise in 'remarketing' where cookies are used to identify which websites a user has visited in the past and display adverts from those websites on third party sites. So if you've ever looked at a Dell computer, for example, you might find that the exact model you were looking at seems to follow you round the internet on completely unrelated sites.

To warn users that "non-essential" cookies are being used in this way, websites in Europe and those that serve European markets, are required to gain consent from their website visitors before placing cookies on their machine. Hence the warning messages you may be seeing a lot of.

In the UK, we were given 12 months grace to implement changes to our websites, so the official start date was May 2012.

The consequence for non compliance with the new law is a substantial £500,000 fine - but only if it is proved that not gaining consent to place cookies on a user's computer causes significant distress.

Google Analytics

Most simple websites won't use cookies. They may, however, use Google Analytics to track website visitors. Although this doesn't mean you're using cookies directly, the Google Analytics code will place a third party cookie on the user's computer.

The ICO sees these cookies as "non-essential", therefore the advice is, better to avoid the fine and comply than risk it.

Conclusion

Although there seems to be little action taken by the EU at this stage to enforce this law, this doesn't mean that the law will not be upheld in the future. If you're unsure as to whether your website uses cookies, ask your web developer or design agency.