Lay down the cookie
Wendy Grossman argues that targeting cookies in the fight to protect privacy is not the right approach
Image: CC-AT Flickr: norwichnuts
British web developers will be spending the next couple of weeks scrambling to meet the May 26 deadline after which new legislation require users to consent before a cookie can be placed on their computers. The Information Commissioner's guidelines allow a narrow exception for cookies that are "strictly necessary for a service requested by the user"; the example given is a cookie used to remember an item the user has chosen to buy so it's there when they go to check out. Won't this be fun?
Normally, net.wars comes down on the side of privacy even when it's inconvenient for companies, but in this case we're prepared to make at least a partial exception. It's always been a little difficult to understand the hatred and fear with which some people regard the cookie. Not the chocolate chip cookie, which of course we know is everything that is good, but the bits of code that reside on your computer to give web pages the equivalent of memory.
Cookies allow a server to assemble a page that remembers what you've looked at, where you've been, and which gewgaw you've put into your shopping basket. At least some of this can be done in other ways such as using a registration scheme. But it's arguably a greater invations of privacy to require users to form a relationship with a web site they may only use once.
The new rules, however, seem overly broad.
In the EU, the anti-cookie effort began in 2001 (the second-ever net.wars), seemed to go quiet, and then revived in 2009, when I called the legislation "masterfully stupid". That piece goes into some detail about the objections to the anti-cookie legislation, so we won't review that here. At the time, reader email suggested that perhaps making life unpleasant for advertisers would force browser manufacturers to design better privacy controls. 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished, but so far it hasn't happened, and in the meantime that legislation has become an EU directive and now UK law.
The chief difference is moving from opt-out to opt-in: users must give consent for cookies to be placed on their machines; the chief flaw is banning a technology instead of regulating undesirable actions and effects. Besides the guidelines above, the ICO refers people to All About Cookies for further information.
Pete Jordan, a Hull-based web developer, notes that when you focus legislation on a particular technology, "People will find ways around it if they're ingenious enough, and if you ban cookies or make it awkward to use them, then other mechanisms will arise." Besides, he says, "A lot of day-to-day usage is to make users' experience of web sites easier, more friendly, and more seamless. It's not life-threatening or vital, but from the user's perception it makes a difference if it disappears." Cookies, for example, are what provide the trail of "breadcrumbs" at the top of a web page to show you the path by which you arrived at that page so you can easily go back to where you were.
"In theory, it should affect everything we do," he says of the legislation. A possible workaround may be to embed tokens in URLs, a strategy he says is difficult to manage and raises the technical barrier for web developers.
The US, where competing anti-tracking bills are under consideration in both houses of Congress, seems to be taking a somewhat different tack in requiring web sites to honor the choice if consumers set a "Do Not Track" flag. Expect much more public debate about the US bills than there has been in the EU or UK. See, for example, the strong insistence by What Would Google Do? author Jeff Jarvis that media sites in particular have a right to impose any terms they want in the interests of their own survival. He predicts paywalls everywhere and the collapse of media economics. I think he's wrong.
The thing is, it's not a fair contest between users and web site owners. It's more or less impossible to browse the web with all cookies turned off: the complaining pop-ups are just too frequent. But targeting the cookie is not the right approach. There are many other tracking technologies that are invisible to consumers which may have both good and bad effects – even web bugs are used helpfully some of the time. (The irony is, of course, regulating the cookie but allowing increases in both offline and online surveillance by police and government agencies.)
Requiring companies to behave honestly and transparently toward their customers would have been a better approach for the EU; one hopes it will work better in the US.
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Wendy M. Grossman responds to "loopy" statements made by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt in regards to censorship and encryption.
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