Opinion: Users are still wary of cookies

The European Parliament's vote to allow the use of cookies to study online user behaviour may be in companies' best interests,...

The European Parliament's vote to allow the use of cookies to study online user behaviour may be in companies' best interests, but not all consumers are convinced

The European Parliament has voted in favour of allowing companies to continue to use cookies to study online user behaviour.

The vote permits promotional material to be sent without an address and leaves the use of cookies in the hands of individual businesses.

Effectively it sanctions self-regulation, although many consumers remain unconvinced that this move is in their best interests.

Legislation had been demanded by some users to restrict or even ban completely the use of cookies for commercial purposes.

User scepticism about the confidentiality of information they choose to divulge on the Web was caused by the increase in unsolicited promotional material arriving in their e-mail in-boxes. Cookies were the source of that information.

A ban on cookies would have spelled disaster for Web-based industry. It would have led to the collapse of possibly hundreds of e-commerce companies, hastened the demise of the online advertising industry and stopped companies being able to study usability of a site or improve services for its users by looking at their online behaviour.

It was worrying how few companies worked together to lobby the European Parliament. Had it not been for continued lobbying by the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), with support from the ABCE, the industry auditor for electronic media and Web site traffic, it could have been a very solemn day for the industry indeed.

Although the outcome is a welcome relief, it may be seen negatively in some quarters.

Self-regulation does not address consumer concerns about how their data is used and leaves the issue of user privacy in the hands of business owners.

The European Parliament was absolutely right to take cookie legislation seriously. At stake was the loss of consumer confidence in using the Web as a communication and e-commerce medium.

An opt-in policy was originally proposed to regulate cookie usage. In short, this meant that before a cookie could be served to the user for purposes such as remembering log-in details, helping with remembering goods in a shopping trolley, or personalising a site to a user's behaviour and interests, a pop-up box would appear asking if they would allow a cookie to be stored.

With many sites serving several cookies this would have impeded the casual browser's enjoyment. Opt-out technology, on the other hand, places users in control of their actions by giving them the choice to input personal details. It is therefore left to companies promoting the use of opt-out systems to foster accountable and user-controlled Internet practice.

Opt-out systems do not impede the user's enjoyment of a site and ensure companies address how they use cookies. Companies piloting opt-out projects are therefore at the vanguard of those who strive to guarantee Web security and integrity.

In light of the EU vote, their role must now be to broadcast their findings to the rest of the industry to ensure that self-regulation is taken seriously.
Simon Roberts is senior consultant at Intellitracker

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