Web firms 'must learn from cookie close shave'

European politicians have backed away from bringing in tough restrictions on the use of cookies, but Web sites should strive to reassure users about online privacy

The European Parliament's decision on Wednesday not to clamp down on the use of Web cookies is a wake-up call for the online industry, according to insiders.

Elements within the EU political scene have been pushing for hard action to be taken against cookies, following concerns that some e-commerce sites have been abusing the technology and violating personal privacy. Having finally settled on a more relaxed approach to the issue, Web sites must respond by making more efforts to reassure users, and legislators, that their privacy is not in danger.

Mark Wilding, client services director at Intellitracker -- a Web usage analysis firm -- believes that the European Parliament came very close to endorsing a much harder line on cookies -- which would have been very bad news for some Web sites.

"People must realise that we came very close to losing the right to use cookies. Businesses must learn from this, and be more open in explaining what data they store and what they do with it," Wilding told ZDNet UK.

Back in November 2001, it looked likely that the European Parliament would insist on tough restrictions on the use of cookies, where users would have to give their permission before a cookie was ever installed on their computer.

Following intense lobbying from industry bodies such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), though, the Parliament reached an agreement with the European Council on a more relaxed approach.

The common position announced by the Parliament and the Council on Wednesday said that cookies -- pieces of code that a Web site downloads to a visitor's hard drive and uses to record personal details and track how they use the site -- can be useful for online advertising and transactions, and for Web design purposes.

In future, the Parliament wants Web sites to provide "clear and precise prior information about the purposes of cookies." Web operators must also give Internet users the opportunity to refuse to have a cookie stored on their computer, and the Parliament wants this system to be as easy to use as possible.

"The methods for giving information, offering a right to refuse or requesting consent should be made as user friendly as possible," said the Parliament

Wilding believes that, in future, Web sites must give people the right to know when their surfing is being tracked, and must also allow them to opt out of this tracking. He doesn't believe, though, that there has been widespread misuse of cookies.

"Our experience is that companies are being very cautious about data protection. Many are running scared from the threat of bad publicity," explained Wilding.

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