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European ePrivacy directive cooks up anti-cookie laws

The European ePrivacy directive has ruled that websites and companies must have your explicit consent to install cookies on your computer from 25 May. What do the new rules mean for you?

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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The government won't be ready to enforce new European laws about cookies when they come into force this summer. The European ePrivacy directive has ruled that websites and companies must obtain your explicit consent to install cookies on your computer from 25 May, but the Department for Culture, Media and Sport won't be able to tell websites what they need to do until well after the new rules come into force.

Cookies are small files that remember what you've been doing on your computer, whether it's remembering your password or settings for the next time you visit a site, or tracking which pages you look at. The new European law specifically targets cookies that remembers things you buy online, information that can be used to advertise other goods to you.

The US Federal Trade Commission wants to introduce similar rules to US policy. Here in Blighty, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is in charge of preparing guidelines for the new laws. The BBC reports those guidelines will be published before the end of March, but the final details won't be worked out in time for the introduction of the laws.

It's not clear how the new rules will be implemented, but you will notice when they begin to come into force. You may see pop-up messages on individual sites asking you for permission to install certain cookies, or perhaps you'll be able to sign up to services that will remember your preferences and apply them across different websites.

Facebook is in a good position to do that, perhaps applying your privacy settings to all the sites you log into with your Facebook account. If anyone knows the pitfalls of privacy, it's Facebook.

Browsers are likely to include settings controlling cookies. Internet Explorer 9 includes Tracking Protection to stop sites tracking you, while Firefox and Chrome are expected to include 'do not track' features too. 

Advertisers oppose the new rules, which prevent sites from installing cookies that continue to track your browsing once you've left a site, gathering data that can be used to target you with adverts. Do you welcome behavioural advertising, which is tailored to your interests, or is it an appalling intrusion on your privacy?