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net.wars: Cookie cutters

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 14 November 2009


Sometimes laws sneak up on you while you're looking the other way. One of the best examples was the American Telecommunications Act of 1996: we were so busy obsessing about the freedom of speech-suppressing Communications Decency Act amendment that we failed to pay attention to the implications of the bill itself, which allowed the regional Baby Bells to enter the long distance market and changed a number of other rules regarding competition.

Wendy M Grossman

We now have a shiny, new example: we have spent so much time and electrons over the nasty three-strikes-and-you're offline provisions that we, along with almost everyone else, utterly failed to notice that the package contains a cookie-killing provision last seen menacing online advertisers in 2001 (our very second net.wars).

The gist: Web sites cannot place cookies on users' computers unless said users have agreed to receive them unless the cookies are strictly necessary – as, for example, when you select something to buy and then head for the shopping cart to check out.

As the Out-Law blog points out this proposal – now to become law unless the whole package is thrown out – is absurd. We said it was in 2001 – and made the stupid assumption that because nothing more had been heard about it the idea had been nixed by an outbreak of sanity at the EU level.

Apparently not. Apparently MEPs and others at EU level spend no more time on the Web than they did eight years ago. Apparently none of them have any idea what such a proposal would mean. Well, I've turned off cookies in my browser, and I know: without cookies, browsing the Web is as non-functional as a psychic being tested by James Randi.

But it's worse than that. Imagine browsing with every site asking you to opt in every – pop-up – time – pop-up – it – pop-up – wants – pop-up – to – pop-up – send – pop-up – you – a – cookie – pop-up. Now imagine the same thing, only you're blind and using the screen reader JAWS.

This soon-to-be-law is not just absurd, it's evil.

Here are some of the likely consequences.

As already noted, it will make Web use nearly impossible for the blind and visually impaired.

It will also (because such is the human response to barriers) direct ever more traffic toward particular sites – aggregators, ecommerce, Web bulletin boards, and social networks – sites  like Facebook, which can write a single privacy policy for the entire service to which users consent when they join (and later at scattered intervals when the policy changes) and that policy can include consent to accepting cookies.

According to Out-Law, the law will trap everyone who uses Google Analytics, visitor counters, and the like. I assume it will also kill AdSense at a stroke: how many small DIY Web site owners would have any idea how to implement an opt-in form?

Both econsultancy.com and BigMouthMedia think affiliate networks generally will bear the brunt of this legislation. BigMouthMedia goes on to note a couple of efforts – HTTP.ETags and Flash cookies - intended to give affiliate networks more reliable tracking that may also fall afoul of the legislation. These, as those sources note, are difficult or impossible for users to delete.

It will presumably also disproportionately catch EU businesses compared to non-EU sites. Most users probably won't understand why particular sites are so annoying; they will simply shift to sites that aren't annoying. The net effect will be to divert Web browsing to sites outside the EU – surely the exact opposite of what MEPs would like to see happen.

And, I suppose, inevitably, someone will write plug-ins for the popular browsers that can be set to respond automatically to cookie opt-in requests and that include provisions for users to include or exclude specific sites. Whether that will offer sites a safe harbour remains to be seen.

The people it will hurt most, of course, are the sites – like newspapers and other publications – that depend on online advertising to stay afloat. It's hard to understand how the publishers missed it; but one presumes they, too, were distracted by the need to defend music and video from evil pirates.

The sad thing is that the goal behind this masterfully stupid piece of legislation is a reasonably noble one: to protect Internet users from monitoring and behavioural targeting to which they have not consented. But regulating cookies is precisely the wrong way to go about achieving this goal, not just because it disables Web browsing but because technology is continuing to evolve. The EU would be better to regulate by specifying allowable actions and consequences rather than specifying technology. Cookies are not in and of themselves inherently evil; it's how they're used.

Eight years ago, when the cookie proposals first surfaced, they, logically enough, formed part of a consumer privacy bill. That they're now part of the telecoms package suggests they've been banging around inside Parliament looking for something to attach themselves to ever since.

I probably exaggerate slightly, since Out-Law also notes that in fact the EU did pass a law regarding cookies that required sites to offer visitors a way to opt out. This law is little-known, largely ignored, and unenforced. At this point the Net's best hope looks to be that the new version is treated the same way.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).