Maija Palmer Brussels is not going to eat all the cookies after all

Cookie“Don’t panic” – the words on the cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – should also be emblazoned on the front page of the EU telecoms package, which was voted through on Tuesday.

This update on European telecoms and internet legislation has been highly controversial. Profound division on issues,  such as whether persistent illegal downloaders can have their internet access cut off, had already delayed its passage by several months.

Then, in the few weeks run-up to its approval, a new panic emerged: Would the new laws force companies to completely change the way they use internet cookies? 

The draft wording suggested that companies would need permission from internet users before embedding these small tracking programmes onto their computers. Legal websites, such as Out-Law, written by lawyers at Pinsent Masons,  painted a nightmare scenario of websites being forced to plague visitors with endless pop-up windows asking for permission to use cookies. The internet would have become virtually unusable.

“From a business and internet perspective it would be a disaster,” said Will Critchlow, co-founder of Distilled, an internet marketing company. “If websites had to throw up a warning to every user a significant number would leave those sites, costing hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenues.”

Fortunately, however, Brussels has clarified things, with a recital – an additional statement - that the issue of “permission” for cookies can be dealt with through browser settings. People can simply use the controls provider by browser companies like Internet Explorer or Firebox to express preferences on accepting cookies at general level, not each specific case. This would mean no change from the way things work now. Big sigh of relief for internet publishers.

But concern and confusion had reached such levels, that IAB Europe, the industry association for internet advertisers, and the European Publishers Council, felt obliged to issue a statement reassuring people.

“A lot of big companies were calling me up, asking about this,” said Kimon Zorbas, vice president of IAB Europe. “In the beginning no one paid attention to this issue, then it became a huge focus at the end.”

The lawyers have also tried to add reassurance.

“The declaration makes clear that the amended Article does not alter the current opt-out requirement for cookies,” said David Fink, a lawyer at the Brussels office of Covington & Burling.

There will still be a little work for internet advertisers and web publishers. The new law talks of a need for clearer information about cookies, which means that the industry will have to improve the way they present those dull privacy policies to the public. They may have to come up with some noble-sounding guidelines, at least, on how they will handle targeted advertising. The European Advertising Standards Alliance is already doing some work on this.

The IAB will also be watching carefully over the next few years that individual EU member countries implement the law properly, noting clarification on cookies. Some rogue member state could still decide to take a hard-line interpretation, says Mr Zorbas. But it’s a relatively remote concern.  

In short, this particular storm in a teacup is over, and is ready to have cookies dunked in it again, as before.