What are Internet Cookies? Why are they So Important?

24 April 2015

Cookies are very important, but sadly we are not talking about edible chocolate chip cookies – no, we mean browser cookies, also known as tracking cookies. To a non-tech savvy person, browser cookies are something of a mystery. You are probably aware of them – in fact it’s hard to miss these days as most websites have prominent banners warning you of their cookie handling policy as soon as you land on their website – but what do cookies actually do?

tablet browser

The Facts about Cookies

Cookies are small text files. Every time you visit a website, a small cookie is downloaded to your computer. When you go back to the website, the cookie is sent back to help create a more personal experience for the visitor. Cookies enable websites to retain log-in information and passwords, which can be useful if you are prone to forgetting these things. Cookies also enable website owners to analyse their web traffic, as they provide useful information such as what pages a visitor has landed on and how long they stayed.

Antivirus software can detect and delete cookies, but as soon as you revisit a website, cookies will be downloaded again unless you change your browser settings.

What is the Current EU Cookie Law?

According to the Information Commissioner’s Office:

The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (the Regulations) cover the use of cookies and similar technologies for storing information, and accessing information stored, on a user’s equipment such as their computer or mobile.

There are various rules in place to protect our privacy when we go online, but in May 2011 the EU cookie law was changed (and then updated in 2012). Website owners are now required by law to inform visitors exactly how they use cookies.

How Are Websites Dealing with Cookie Laws?

You are probably already familiar with the policy adopted by many websites, which involves placing prominent banners at the top of the page, informing visitors that cookies are used. This approach errs on the side of caution, since most people can’t fail to miss the notification. However, a more discreet way of staying legal is to add a ‘cookie’ link to your privacy policy.

All websites must warn visitors if they use tracking cookies. Consent is normally implied by the visitors continued use of the website, but it is helpful to spell this out in your privacy policy and remind people that they are free to change their browser settings to block cookies (although this will have a negative impact on how the website works).

If you need any advice on cookies and privacy policies, feel free to get in touch.