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Published on March 20th, 2017 | by Nick Wallace

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New EU Cookie Law Hurts Ad-Supported Industries (Like Journalism) Without Offering More Privacy

The European Commission is fussing over cookies again. The last piece of European legislation on this matter, the 2002 ePrivacy directive, pushed website owners to begin displaying prominent banners setting out how they use cookies—little bits of data about users’ visits to websites. These banners serve absolutely no useful purpose, but have come at a cost of €2.16 billion per year. According to the latest draft of the new version of the ePrivacy directive, published in January, the Commission plans to take some of those banners away, but replace them with a requirement that all web browsers force customers to set their cookie preferences before they can start surfing the web. This too is pointless, because privacy-conscious consumers already have these tools at their disposal and do not need to be forced to use them. The rules will just create another obstacle for web users and needlessly harm ad-supported services, including social media, music and video streaming, and journalism.

All major web browsers already include simple-to-use controls that allow users to choose what cookies get through. This always includes an option to block “third-party” cookies, which come from other websites and support cross-site services (such as click-buttons to share items on social media) as well as targeted advertising. All mainstream browsers also give the option of automatically deleting cookies at the end of a session. Users who have concerns about cookies can disable third-party cookies, delete old cookies, use a “private” browsing mode that automatically deletes cookies generated during that browsing session, or simply not visit sites that use cookies the user does not approve of. Ergo, the proposed rule cannot possibly be intended for their benefit. It follows that the intended target must therefore be the remainder of users who are sufficiently unconcerned as to make do with the default cookie settings.

Presumably the new ePrivacy draft is based on a paternalistic assumption that the only reason some people are unconcerned about cookies is that they do not understand them, because forcing this choice on someone who does is as impotent as having responsible drinkers sign a consent form before letting them imbibe alcohol. But of course, forcing a choice on somebody who does not understand it is self-evidently pointless, just as a Belgian beer of 11 percent ABV might not sound—or even taste—all that strong to somebody unaccustomed to booze; after all, it is almost 90 percent nonalcoholic, so why not sign and guzzle a few pints of the stuff? In either case, forcing people to make a particular choice does not empower them to choose more wisely, it only pesters them. Ironically, the proposed rules do nothing to stop cookies that consumers cannot control, such as so-called “zombie cookies,” which are difficult to delete.

Pointlessness alone should be sufficient evidence against any futile law, but in this case the proposed measure is also harmful because its apparent intention seems to be to encourage more people to block third-party cookies, which will starve important services of revenue. Services from social networking to music and video streaming to journalism rely on advertising to stay afloat. They can charge advertisers more for ads that target particular audiences using cookies, allowing them to provide their services at lower prices or for free, without over-burdening their customers with excessive advertising. Europe is already behind in Internet services, and this measure will just make it even harder for it to catch up.

One unsettling implication of the proposed measures would be for journalism. Restricting the ability of the press to support itself with targeted advertising will stoke demand for larger audiences to compensate for less effective ads, making it harder for serious news outlets to compete with poor-quality clickbait. Quality news outlets already struggle to survive in a market where few consumers are willing to pay for good journalism. Losses in this industry have already had disturbing social consequences, particularly the rise of so-called “fake news,” and the number of people willing to believe it over verified sources and established facts.

This draft new cookie law is even worse than the old one. Despite the latter’s costs, it at least does not take direct aim at the business models of vital services. The Commission should ditch both, as they are equally futile, if not equally damaging. Rather than require customers to formally opt-in to cookies, policymakers should ensure that the tools already available are complemented by adequate transparency. Websites already have to publish easily accessible information on how they use cookies. That allows anyone who wants to know to find out, without imposing on people who simply do not care.

Image credit: T Sheppard.

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About the Author

Nick Wallace

Nick Wallace is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Data Innovation. He previously worked as a government technology policy analyst at Ovum, a global consultancy based in London. He has a master’s degree in public policy jointly awarded from the Central European University in Budapest and the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals and a bachelor’s degree in politics from Liverpool John Moores University. Wallace speaks English, Spanish, and German.



One Response to New EU Cookie Law Hurts Ad-Supported Industries (Like Journalism) Without Offering More Privacy

  1. M Meier says:

    Well written. The new law is very typical of a beaurocratic and interest-driven institution like the EU where the only authority to inact law is the executive branch (!), which is fed by lobbyists and staffers from the vast and ever-growing civil service. It follows quite easily that none, zero, nada of any of the people involved in writing this law have ever had any bearing to running an actual business, let alone any sort of technical nor marketing education that would allow them to fathom the implicatoins of their own doing. The result is no surprise.

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