For website owners, UK cookie law causing confusion, uncertainty

A survey of digital marketing professionals found some companies plan to take no action to comply with UK cookie law before the May 26 deadline.

With only two months to go before the new UK cookie law begins governing the way website owners handle cookies, many digital marketing professionals say they do not have a clear understanding of how to implement the law. Nearly half say their companies have done little to prepare for the change, and many say they will ignore it altogether.

A lot of companies are adopting a wait-and-see approach to see what others are doing.

Linus Gregoriadis

A survey by London-based Econsultancy of 739 European companies found 67% of respondents knew the law was due to come into force on May 26. Many had read the guidance from the Information Commissioners Office (ICO), and slightly more than half had performed an audit of cookie usage in preparation for the change.

However, only 44% said they understood which cookies were “strictly necessary” under the terms of the law, and only 39% claimed to have a clear understanding of the user interface options available to receive user consent.

The Econsultancy poll took place in March 2012, collecting responses from digital marketing professionals on the Econsultancy customer database. The results of the survey were published this month in an Econsultancy report called the EU ePrivacy Directive.

“A lot of companies are adopting a wait-and-see approach to see what others are doing,” said Linus Gregoriadis, research director for Econsultancy. “One concern for companies that plan to comply is that the user experience will be harmed.”

Details of the cookies regulations

From May 26, 2012, UK companies will need to seek informed and explicit consent from website visitors to use cookies and other tracking mechanisms. This will bring the UK into compliance with a 2009 amendment to the 2003 EU ePrivacy directive.

Many website owners and security experts believe consumers will be confused or scared off from using a website that asks if they agree to accept cookies. This was borne out by the Econsultancy poll, where only 7% believed Web users would understand the changes regarding cookies and the consent that will be required to issue them.

As well as answering specific questions, respondents were also encouraged to add further comments. The overall tone of the respondents’ comments highlights the level of confusion about the new rules, and the general feeling that the rules will do little to protect consumers. The most charitable opinion called the new law “well intentioned but ill informed,” while others just dismissed it as “a waste of time.”

Many respondents declared they would take no immediate action, and instead would bide their time to see what other companies do, and to gauge how effectively the law is policed.

Guide to EU cookie compliance

This article is part of the EU cookie compliance guide which contains news and advice for organisations in Europe and around the world for complying with the cookie law.

Alan Calder, chairman of Cambridge-based consultancy IT Governance, said the results were not surprising. “Most people running business-to-consumer websites take the view that the requirement will damage their Google rating by forcing them to use pop-ups,” he said. “And it will put consumers off by getting them to sign up for something they don’t really understand, in a complicated two-step process when Web designers have worked hard over the years to bring down the number of steps users need to go through.”

Calder advised website owners to, at the very least, do a cookie audit before the May 26 deadline. “That way you are not ignoring the law,” he said. “The ICO is unlikely to impose a fine on companies that are at least showing they are willing and thinking about the issue.”

Calder said many Web designers believe the cookie requirement might be quietly dropped if it is seen to damage commerce in a serious way. He pointed to the requirement introduced a decade ago for website owners to make their sites accessible to blind people. “A standard was produced for that and some website owners spent a lot of money becoming compliant, but that seems to have now fallen by the wayside,” he said.

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