What’s cooking in online privacy?
Posted: 17th Apr 2012
Have you heard of the EC directive officially known as The Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2011? No? The chances are that you’re not alone, and yet this obscure-sounding piece of legislation may be about to have more impact on the way you browse and use the web than any other piece of law over the last 10 years.
The EC directive will become UK law this month, and cuts to the heart of the discussion about who has the right to see what you’re up to online. Even within highly technical circles, however, there’s a lot of debate about what it is and what it means, so if you have head of it and are slightly confused about its implications, you’re in good company it seems.
Unlike the edible variety, web cookies track your browser viewing habits
The most significant part of the new regulations concerns ‘cookies’. These not at all biscuit-like things are the short lines of text stored on your PC which websites use to record information about you and track your behaviour.
The purpose of cookies varies from site to site: sometimes they record details like whether or not you’ve selected to use the UK or international version of a site, or whether you want to look at it in mobile view.
Other times they’re written to your PC by online advertisers, who will store a code that identifies you on other sites you visit in order to tailor the ads you see. If you spend a lot of time shopping for socks, in other words, an online advertiser might work this out using cookies and make sure that the adverts you see on the next site you visit are all for black hold ups. You can read about what cookies are and what they do here.
The debate about cookies is almost as old as the web itself. Site owners and advertising networks argue that they allow for a personalised web experience. If a site remembers who you are, you don’t need to set your preferences every time you visit, and you can automatically get information – like sock adverts – that are more relevant to you.
Critics say that cookies can be used to identify people as they browse the web, and are therefore an infringement of our right to privacy. After all, what business is it of the shop who looks at their sock display – if you were asked to present ID every time you walk into a superstore and had an assistant record every packet you picked up, for example, you’d get pretty annoyed pretty quickly.
Taking control of your online privacy isn’t hard, although few people do it. Many web browsers, like Firefox and Internet Explorer, have an option for ‘Do not track me’. This disables cookie storage.
There are also add-ons like Ghostery for Chrome that will warn you which sites are tracking your behaviour and allow you to block them. You have to voluntarily install the add-on or turn on privacy settings, though, and most people simply use their browser the way it was set up by default.
The new regulations, however, put the onus back on website owners. Under the new rules, websites won’t be able to assume you’re happy for them to set cookies on your PC without asking, you’ll have to give your explicit permission by ticking a box.
Critics of the proposals, however, say that this fundamentally breaks the web as we know it, and could harm online trades. If every site is forced to use a pop-up every time you visit, it’ll soon annoy you. And many cookies are innocuous anyway, sending no personal data but allowing sites to keep a record of how many unique visitors they receive.
How the new laws will be policed will be another concern – what if a site is hosted overseas, or the person who runs it can’t be reached? How will it be punished for setting cookies it shouldn’t? Won’t that put European sites at a competitive disadvantage?
These are all valid concerns, but perhaps the most important thing is that it will get people talking about privacy issues at the very least. The internet is a vast, interconnected space that only works because one computer knows something about another computer it’s trying to talk to – which means almost everything you do can be tracked and traced online. There are scandals waiting to happen which will make phone hacking look like curtain twitching nosiness.
With large companies vacuuming up terabytes of information about consumers that you might prefer to keep private, but have unwittingly revealed on Facebook say, we need to have a very public debate about what is acceptable and what isn’t in terms of collecting data online, and now is the time to do it.
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