…spread your anger!
Annoying, aren’t they? Patronising, perhaps? Pedantic? Pointless?
Yes, all of the above. The whole thing’s a bit silly, really. As many people who visit this blog probably realise, they’re appearing as a result of a bit of European law – often referred to as the ‘cookies directive’, but more accurately an update to the e-privacy directive (the Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications). An annoying piece of legislation, one which even before it was passed in 2009 had been subject to pretty intense criticism – and rightly so. The drafters of the legislation deserve a great deal of criticism and a good deal of anger – it’s a bit of a pig’s ear, to be frank. So should the politicians and bureaucrats who brought it into action. Typical European busybodies, I’ve heard it said. They want to control everything we do…
…and yet, deserving though they are of a lot of criticism, they’re not the only ones who should bear the brunt of the anger, of the annoyance. Legislation, even poorly drafted and misguided legislation, doesn’t emerge in a vacuum. That’s particularly true in the case of the cookies directive – it emerged, as most law does, because there was a problem. In this case, the problem was that our privacy was being invaded, persistently and on a large scale, particularly by those involved in the online advertising industry.
Those who follow my blog may have heard me write before about Phorm, perhaps the most invasive and offensive of the behavioural advertisers, whose systems were designed to intercept your entire internet activity, track you and profile you, so as to be able to target advertisements at you. Their activities were hugely invasive of privacy – so much so that the outrage that grew about it played a key part in forcing them to abandon their business – and yet the online advertising industry bodies supported them throughout and did their very best to discourage any kind of investigation into their activities.
The cookies directive – and all those annoying warnings – has its origins in that story. Whilst privacy advocates investigated and European politicians and bureaucrats tried to first of all find out what was happening and then try to work out some kind of solution, what they got from the industry was characterised by denial, obfuscation and obstruction. Either there wasn’t a problem at all, or it would be best solved by self-regulation. Neither of those were true – and the people, politicians and bureaucrats knew it. Their equivalents in the US know it too, which is why they’re still trying to get the ‘Do Not Track’ initiative off the ground – and in the US they’re receiving the same kind of resistance as they got in Europe.
Regulators don’t like being fobbed off. They don’t like being treated without respect, or told they’re being foolish – it’s not the best way to get useful, helpful and productive regulation. Instead, it’s likely to bring about bad law – stuff like the cookies directive. Yes, it’s a stupid law – but it would never have been brought into action if the online advertisers had admitted that there was a problem, and at least tried to do something about it. If they’d shown some degree of understanding first of all that people were upset, secondly that they had a reason to be upset, and thirdly that they should do something about it, then they might have been able to head off the legislative mess that has resulted. They didn’t.
It’s not an unusual story – there are parallels with the way the newspaper industry’s far-from effective self-regulation led to the Leveson Inquiry, and may end up in over-the-top regulation of the press. If you behave badly, and continue to behave badly even when people complain, things like that happen…. and you can’t just blame the regulators.
In the case of the cookies directive – and all those annoying warnings – the online advertising industry should take their share of your annoyance and anger…..