The Cookie Conundrum

I used to like Europe.

When I returned from my lunch today I received my regular newsletter from Internetworks Magazine and began to read. Generally speaking I don’t take too much of an interest in the politics of what’s going on in my industry, who’s suing who, etc., so I wasn’t particularly surprised to see that a story had passed me by. However, as a professional web designer I was horrified to read it.

Reported Internetworks Newsdesk:

"MEPs have voted to pass a Privacy in Electronic Communications directive which includes a controversial new amendment which would effectively outlaw the use of cookies. It demands that all Web sites ask their users for permission before cookies are delivered."

I immediately decided that my MEP needed to hear from me. Quite a decision considering that the last time I wrote to my MEP I was only eight and it was about the illegal trade in parrots (ah, bless!) But on the other hand, it had been far too long. I have no idea who voted where, how or why on this one but one thing I am certain of is that the decision by the European Parliament to pass this "cookies" amendment to the new directive is a mistake and misinformed.

The Case for Cookies

So, what are cookies? As we know, cookies are plainly and simply an information store. A cookie can store anything you like within reason. But that’s all it can do.

What do we techy people use them for? There are many problems inherent in the design and development of Internet products, but the one that makes the strongest case for cookies from the point of view of the user experience is this:

Impatient Users

People are impatient. They always want things yesterday. Speed is of the essence — perish the thought of having to, say, type in your email address twice. "But I’ve already done that once!" come the shrieks, followed by exasperated sighs and ominous clicking as Websites are abandoned. I’ve seen it. I’ve sat there watching people test my sites to destruction and complain about the slightest delay or duplication of action. And, as we all know, if people get bored or irritated they just leave.

A good example of simple and harmless use of cookies is the site I am currently working on. It has a lot movie clips in it and I have to respect the fact that though I think these movies are great, Joe User might not agree. And so I ask Joe, "Do you want to see the movies on this Website?" With the aid of cookies, if he says "no thanks" then I need never bother him again. Otherwise I’d have to ask him on every page of the site — which would soon annoy Joe, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

Marketing and User Needs

Then there’s the marketing angle. Nowadays you can go to a Website and, based on the information saved in a cookie about which pages you visited last time, that Website can present the information that it thinks may be of interest to you. This could be a news article, a particular product, or anything really. You wouldn’t complain if your newspaper only contained articles that you wanted to read, or your local supermarket made sure your favourite products were the easiest to get to. Well, what’s the difference? At the end of the day, the tracking of users in this manner can be done with or without cookies. And personally, I’d rather this information be kept in a folder on my machine, than in someone’s SQL database somewhere and out of my hands!

Increased Accessibility

Cookies even have a place as a tool for people with disabilities. If you are visually impaired a cookie can remember that and display the text in a larger font. If you have hearing difficulties a multimedia site using cookies can remember that and give you subtitles to a video interview.

Now I know that the EU aren’t proposing to ban cookies all together. The thing is that their directive will insist that you ask people before planting a cookie on their machine. But there are problems with this, too.

You Can’t Say No!

Firstly, a surprising number of people still don’t know anything about the Internet and for this reason, asking them if they want a cookie is a waste of time. Even your careful explanation of what a cookie is will usually go over their heads. And depending on how paranoid they are, they’ll either say yes or no just as they’d say yes or no to anything else they might come across: "The Flash plugin? What’s that? Oh it can’t hurt. Do I want to download this file? Ah, go on then." You get the picture.

Secondly, the browsers used by the majority of the population already ask you whether you want to accept cookies or not. You may or may not remember that when you first got your computer and went to a Website that used cookies, it helpfully asked you if you wanted to allow them, and explained what they were. If you don’t remember, then you’re further proving my last point, but trust me, it did.

Of course cookies can be abused but what you have to remember is that the only data that can get in to a cookie is the data that the user puts there, or data that’s already freely available in the public domain (such as your IP address). So what’s the problem with cookies? I personally think that the real issue has been completely missed.

Education First

I know that the UK government is already dealing with this as a result of the Data Protection Act. I’ve seen the posters on the tube telling people to be more careful where they give out information when they’re online, and that’s quite right. People should be aware that what they place on the Internet is to all intents and purposes "public", but reducing the usage of cookies won’t help anyone. Forcing Internet technologies to take a step back because of user ignorance is surely not the answer. Putting the focus on ensuring that the people who use the Internet understand how it works — and what the dangers are — is far more sensible than tying it up with rules that, though designed to "protect" them, in turn make their lives more difficult.

So if the MEPs want to take the Internet and wrap it up in bureaucracy, good luck to them. They can try, but I hope they reconsider. Don’t forget what the Internet was always intended to be and still is: an efficient way for a lot of people to share information in many places at the same time. Politicians note: If you obstruct the use of cookies on the Internet then all you do is prevent people such as myself from creating exciting, dynamic and intelligent Websites for people like you. After all, if you don’t like cookies, you can always turn them off (go to Tools –> Internet Options –> …well, if you’re that bothered, you’ll find out on the Internet).

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