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Please kill this cookie monster to save Europe's websites

Crummy cookie cutting law really takes the biscuit

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In fact, the expression of a "will to accept" is as close as the recital gets to mentioning consent. The recital refers twice to "the right to refuse" a cookie – yet the Article itself tells us that users must give consent, which is a different standard and a higher one.

The recital reads like an afterthought, like an apology for the over-zealous Article that follows. As such, the combination makes little sense – and websites are given a headache.

A press release about the Directive said very little about the cookie plan. All it said was: "The installation of 'cookies' on users’ computers would also be subject to consent by the user."

We contacted the European Parliament's press office for further guidance. A spokesman answered: "There has not yet been, at this stage, any clear and conclusive interpretation."

"Ultimately, whether we're talking about the existing text of 5(3) or the revised one, only courts can give an authoritative interpretation – there's a functional separation if you will between the legislator and the court system," he said. "Guidelines etc. can also be expected to be issued by the Commission, the EDPS [the European Data Protection Supervisor, who guides EU institutions on their own compliance] and national data protection authorities."

"Only the courts can decide" is a lawyer's second-favourite back-covering cliché, right after "every case turns on its own facts." It's completely unhelpful to hear it from lawmakers. How can judges and regulators know what lawmakers intended if they express themselves in riddles?

The root of the problem is that this law is probably not aimed at cookies at all. It is aimed at more sinister things being placed upon or read from website visitors' computers. In an effort to remain technology-neutral, the Article fails in its purpose. It talks of storing "information," not cookies, thereby categorising harmless cookies and password-stealing Trojans together. That is unhelpful and we have been left with ambiguous wording.

Fortunately, there is time to fix this legislative mess. The law is part of a wider telecoms reform package and MEPs took exception to another detail of that package last week, an attempt to combat file-sharing with a controversial 'three strikes' rule. They sent the whole thing back to the European Commission as a consequence.

If the Commission accepts the file-sharing changes, it will go to the Council of Ministers on 12th June. The Ministers will decide whether or not to accept the Parliament's changes and any further changes by the Commission. By then there will be a new Parliament and, from November, a new group of Commissioners. Despite the fact that all three bodies had agreed the cookie part of the law, the new assemblies may revisit and change that bit too.

To anyone seeking imminent election to the European Parliament: will you fix this please? It's not the first time that cookie plans have needed fixing: the same problem arose with the original Directive (see: European Council votes for spam opt-in and new cookie plan, OUT-LAW News, 07/12/2001), but the end result was acceptable. For companies with EU lobbyists: for the sake of your website's usability, please ask them to lobby.

Had MEPs not taken exception to the file-sharing provisions, the latest cookie proposals would have been installed in EU law this month with the stealth of the spyware they set out to block. Most of us did not know that this was going on: the English text with the cookie provisions became available only on Thursday. But our silence must not be misinterpreted as consent.

By Struan Robertson, editor of OUT-LAW.COM. This article represents Struan's views – not necessarily those of Pinsent Masons. Follow Struan's 140-character rants and ramblings at twitter.com/struan99.

See also:

Relevant wording of the new law and the old law

The complete law

Cookie law - an OUT-LAW guide

AboutCookies.org

Copyright © 2009, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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