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Will you say ‘yes’ to Cookies?

31st January 2012

On 26th May the ICO changed their rules on using cookies and similar technologies for storing information. One of the main changes to these regulations is that the site must get the user’s consent before storing any cookies on their device. A browser is being developed with industry-leaders like Microsoft, Mozilla, Apple, Google, Yahoo and Adobe on board.  At the current moment the ICO are just suggesting that doing something is better than nothing, they will not be enforcing any fines for the first 12 months. An example of what should be on every site within 12 months is shown below, with the user having to accept or deny cookies on entry to the site, this will often be in the form of a banner or pop up. For the moment though transparency is the best option.

google cookies option
Google are very transparent, however they don’t use any sort of banner or pop up that immediately asks for consent which is what the ICO asks for. The only way that users can potentially get around Google without using cookies is through the secure version however Google greatly discourages this saying that the service will lose personalisation and will provide an inferior experience. Google announced on 25th January that they are updating their privacy policy in order to provide an even more personalised service for users through the collection of information that a user inputs during their visit to Google’s services. Apparently this will improve the users experience by making suggestions based on the user’s earlier inputs. This can be seen as a method of improving everyone’s virtual experience but could it really just be an invasion of privacy?

Facebook has always been a target for internet critics for their use of tracking cookies. Some Facebook users may be unaware that every time they ‘like’ a friend’s status or ‘share’ a link on a friend’s wall this information is used by Facebook to track your actions, even once you have logged out. Facebook are currently involved in a heavy legal battle to do with just this. It is almost impossible to use Facebook without cookies; simple things such as entering your log in details or updating a status are all captured and shared in one way or another. If you were serious about restricting Facebook hold on you then you can get applications such as Facebook disconnect which is currently provided in Google chrome. Should you go to these lengths however there is no real point in being on Facebook at all as your actions will be severely restricted. With the new policy Facebook will technically have to ask for consent for the use of cookies upon every user’s arrival to the site, perhaps informing more naive users that their information is being used and shared around the internet. With numerous legal battles and controversies over their tracking, could this policy change be the final straw for the social networking site?

This new policy could bring difficulties for many companies. Ryan Air could be a potential example of this; there have been many cases where Ryan Air has been accused of using tracking cookies to increase prices for users. This happens when a user searches for flights on their website which is when the cookie is stored in the user’s computer. Should the user then research other flights from different companies then Ryan Air will be able to track them and once the user realises that they are providing the lowest price and go back to their site they are able to up the prices. Ryan Air has denied this on many counts but it has not yet been entirely proved incorrect. If this was to be true then the new policy would mean that visitors to the Ryan Air website could deny the use of these cookies much more easily than with previous policies and would therefore benefit from the original lower prices.

The research that I have carried out has shown that not many of the top websites are really doing that much to comply with the new regulations. The most compliant that I have found, even though they are not officially asking for consent from the user is BBC online who have changed their way of working since May 2011 when the rules came into place. They have published a list of all the main cookies that they use across BBC online and what each is used for. They also offer information on how to control the cookies on computers and mobile devices. The BBC officially said ‘We’ll continue to provide you with clear signposting to the cookies we use on BBC Online, so that you can make informed decisions about them, whilst being able to enjoy the best possible user experience across our web offering.’ It can be expected that many other companies will follow in these footsteps before completely changing their cookie use.

Cookies can be perceived as being things that only make your internet life less secure when in actual fact they aren’t actually all that bad. They have many very useful purposes. Try imagining the internet without cookies, on Facebook you wouldn’t be able set a status, like someone’s photo, or even log in for that matter. When checking your emails you would have to enter your log in details every time and you can basically forget online shopping. Amazon for example uses cookies for their 1 click purchasing and storing items in shopping baskets. Additionally they are able to recommend products for users based on other products they have searched which can save time and provide helpful suggestions. So without using cookies would the internet really provide any real use?

For someone that previously knew basically nothing about cookies this research has taught me a lot, and I imagine that they are many other people out there that previously did not know that they are being tracked on the internet. Once this policy comes fully into force and users have to agree or disagree everyone will be much more aware of which sites are using them, which currently isn’t obvious at all, which is perhaps the main aim of the ICO. There are advantages to cookies though, without them you wouldn’t be able to shop online and your experience on many different websites would be much poorer. So are cookies really that bad? When the 12 months are up and companies have to ask for consent will you be rejecting or accepting them?

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Currently just an Intern, i basically do what people tell me to do! Studying at Manchester university and living the general student life :)

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