Do you accept cookies? This question is thrown at us so many times a day now that most people just have a reflex action towards the "Accept" button so they can go about their business. The UK Government is hoping to change that with new laws that will remove the need for these banners. As is often the case, it's unlikely to be as simple as that...
Before we go into the specifics of what is being proposed here, it's worth us just briefly pausing for us to outline what a cookie is. For something we're asked about so frequently, it's likely many of us don't really know what service they perform.
In simple terms, a cookie is something that allows a website to remember who you are as you go from one page to the next. This can be essential in some cases. Are you logged in to the system? Are you the person that just added something into your shopping basket? These are the sorts of things that cookies can store.
Cookies can also store inessential data - or at least data that is inessential to you personally. One very popular application that falls within this bracket is analytics. This sets a cookie on your machine and tracks you as you navigate through a website. What path did you take? How long did you spend on each page? Did that new button we added entice you to buy something? This can be seen as indirectly useful, as it aids companies in building better websites. It could also be argued it's needlessly intrusive.
There's also cookies that can be set that most people would probably put in the "dodgy" category. These get stored on your device and track you round the internet. By linking together the data received from these, it's possible to build a pretty extensive profile of what you do online, and then use that to serve personalised ads to you (amongst other things).
So, given the above, the EU proposed that the less essential elements of this shouldn't happen without the user consenting to it. They didn't propose a strict solution to this, but nearly all websites went with a banner that either sits at the bottom of the page or one that you can't get at the site until you deal with it.
To deal with what many just treat as a nuisance, the UK Government is proposing that people should be able to opt out rather than opt in to cookies. The details on how a user could opt out is quite vague at the moment, but it has been hinted that this could involve the user setting this preference in their web browser, which websites could then check when you visit them.
This seems like a sensible solution on the face of it. If you want to reject all inessential cookies on all websites, just set this once in your browser and then forget about it. However...
How will the cookie crumble?
The first point to make here is this has been tried before. Various browsers added a "Do not Track" option that websites were supposed to respect. However, that required websites to actively check for this setting. Many didn't. This plan slowly died a death and has been phased out.
Secondly, it's likely some users have literally never delved into the settings of their web browser, and may not know how to even if they wanted to. As annoying as the current cookie popups are, they are at least simple enough for anyone to use (even if they are sometimes designed to be as confusing as possible to trick or bore you into just allowing everything).
Finally, and probably more significant ultimately, the UK is not the EU. When a body as large as the EU decides something, the rest of the world has to comply or lose a huge chunk of their potential market. This is why most US websites also have cookie banners now - if they want to comply with EU law, they need to include these. Therefore it's just easier to display them to everyone.
The UK can decide whatever it likes here, but unless the rest of the world does anything about it, it's unlikely to change anything. Companies in the UK will still be obliged to deal with EU users in the same way they do now. And are companies in the EU and US really going to implement bespoke alternatives just for the UK? It seems unlikely. Much as in the case of the EU (and possibly the US too) legislating that Apple must use USB charging cables for their devices now, the fact the UK has said we're not following suit will likely make little difference. Apple is hardly going to make a version of the iPhone just for the UK. We'll just get the same one with USB charging that everyone else will.
So, while we're certainly not fans of the cookie banner ourselves, we shan't be holding our breath that these proposals will have the impact the government are hoping for.