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European Cookie-Consent Initiative: Naively Well-Intentioned, But A Step Backwards

To comply with European paranoia about web privacy, British Internet users will soon be returning to the Dickensian days of the Internet, filled with grime, noise and the occasional street urchin picking your pocket while regaling you with a clever song and dance number.

Starting late this spring, the naively well-intentioned European e-Privacy “cookie-consent” initiative will start to make its presence felt in Britain. As a result, British Internet users will soon be faced with an onslaught of cookie-consent requests and explanations that will confuse, confound and annoy nearly all users, while ultimately undermining the ability of British companies to compete online. In short, it will make the web worse for everyone.

We’re going to talk about cookies, I promise, but before we do, let’s honor this giant leap backward by taking a quick look at what the Internet was like just a few years ago. In the awesome early days of the information super highway, most sites basically looked like this:

Web users faced tough questions back then:

*If a site doesn’t have an animated gnome with a pickaxe or bright yellow and black Stryper graphics, how will I know it is under construction?

*I’ve got a sweet new 2800 baud modem, what do I do with all this extra time now that pages only take one minute and not two, to load?

*How will I ever fill up my four megabytes of Hotmail storage?

*Should I, or should I not, punch this monkey?

You can almost see that same animated “under construction” sign outside the halls of British lawmakers, where Britain’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) seeks to build the rules instructing British websites how they must comply with the e-Privacy laws.

These laws state that users must provide “explicit consent” before they can save a cookie file onto their computers. While this seems reasonable, it is legislation borne out of ignorance of what cookies do. And while it’s likely too late for Europe to avoid the impact of this legislation, it’s important to talk more about what exactly cookies can and can’t do so that US legislators don’t make the same mistake their European counterparts have already made.

So here’s your cookie hot sheet, or, if you prefer, your hot cookie sheet.

Cookies don’t know who you are: cookies are text files that basically say “User X was here.” If you are on a cooking website, and User X is cookied by an advertiser or an ad network while he’s there getting his romance on, he might see cooking ads elsewhere. Those advertisers don’t know who User X is though, or all the trouble he’s gotten into that has led him to believe cooking a meal is the answer. No, they just know that User X expressed an interest in cooking.

Cookies can’t “track” you: To read articles and hear public policy debate on the matter, it’s easy to assume that a cookie can watch all of your browsing or computer activity and report it back to some secret cabal of marketers. This is absolutely not the case. We in this secret cabal wish we could watch all you do, but sadly, we cannot.

You already have complete control: most web browsers give users all the mechanisms they’ll ever need to control their privacy settings. If you’d like, you can lock down your browser so that it doesn’t accept cookies. You may find that the web gets crappier as you do so, but this is America, and it’s your choice to do so. Amazingly, these very simple browser configurations work even in the barbarian lands of Europe.

Cookies help keep the Internet free: even as some newspapers have begun to hide their content behind pay walls, most of the Internet is free, and from what we can tell, people like it that way. While it’s certainly true that cookies have been abused by unethical advertisers, the vast majority of cookies help deliver more relevant content and more personal experiences to users, and allow websites like this one to offer incredibly high quality content (like this post, for example) to you at no charge. Behavioral targeting, the kind most dependent upon the kinds of cookies that Europe is making so unnecessarily difficult to obtain, will typically perform 3-10 times better than non-targeted ads. At scale, this means websites would need to expose you to 3-10 times as many ads to make the same amount of money.

If this is the Internet you want, then by all means, harp on about privacy. Why take personal responsibility over your own information with a few clicks when you can use your tax dollars to legislate an unworkable solution? It looks like the British are out of luck. If America goes down the same road, the next time you read this article, I might have my hand out, asking you for money so you don’t have to look at any more belly fat ads. Do you really want that?

Jeremy Chrysler is a Senior Vice President at Inuvo, Inc, an online marketing company which uses cookies at www.bargainmatch.com to pay users cash back on their purchases at over 1,600 merchants

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