Why is it important?
While many people may not care too much about cookies, there are a number of reasons why they are important for website owners.
First, you cannot drop a cookie without prior consent. As a result of the changes already brought in by the GDPR since May 2018, it is no longer possible to reply on implied consent for cookies (for example, deemed consent by continuing to browse the website) as the standard for consent under the GDPR is much higher and requires a specific opt-in.
Second, the issue of cookies is high on regulator’s (the ICO) agenda. While many of us suffer from “cookie notice fatigue”, and just click through to get rid of the annoying banners, there has been an increasing number of complaints about cookies to the ICO, nearly 2,000 in the past year.
Third, the ICO is also currently investigating the Adtech sector which is largely driven by cookies. While many cookies are innocuous, others are highly privacy invasive and are involved in systematic monitoring and tracking browsing across devices, device fingerprinting and online behavioural advertising. The intrusive nature of the technology makes this a priority area for the regulators. In response to this, the hugely complex adtech industry will likely be required to adapt and provide much higher levels of transparency.
Fourth, because of the GDPR level fines; there is nothing like the eye-watering fines that can be issued under the GDPR, and have been issued in relation to cookies notably by the French regulator to Google and Amazon, to get this issue high up the corporate agenda (eg CNIL – €100m Google, €35m Amazon).
And finally, the law is developing with a new ePrivacy regulation on the horizon, which we look at below.
What is the current law?
The current law is based on the EU ePrivacy Directive of 2002. In the UK, this was implemented by the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, fondly known as “PECR”.
Actually, the law does not refer to “cookies” as such; the regulation is technology neutral and covers a range of cookie-like technologies. The key point is that PECR covers any technology that can “access” or “store” data on the user device – this includes smartphones, smart TVs and other devices. It can also include technologies like tracking pixel gifs, often used to track if marketing emails have been opened which can provide valuable analytics.
The key requirement under PECR is that, where you deploy a cookie, you must:
- provide the user with clear and comprehensive information about the purposes of the cookie; and
- get the consent of the user.
There are a couple of exceptions to this, the most important one being that you do not need consent for cookies that are “strictly necessary” for the service requested by the user.
So, cookies that are helpful or convenient but not essential, or that are only essential for your own purposes, as opposed to the user’s, will still require consent.
For example, cookies used to authenticate a user, to remember items in a shopping cart, or to remember language or other user preferences are regarded as “strictly necessary”, but cookies for analytics purposes, and advertising cookies are non-essential and need consent.
PECR v GDPR
An important thing to bear in mind is that consent for cookies is needed, whether or not the cookie data involves any “personal data”. If it does involve personal data, such as device ID, username, browsing details etc, then that will be subject to the GDPR as well as PECR.
Under the GDPR, you need a legal basis for processing personal data. Typically, for marketing, this could be either consent or legitimate interests. However, where cookies are deployed and processing of personal data is involved, then PECR trumps the GDPR. This means that, if consent is required under PECR, then consent is also the appropriate legal basis for processing personal data under the GDPR.
There is some debate about this in the adtech sector where it is argued that, while consent is needed for the cookie, “legitimate interests” could be used as the legal basis for any subsequent processing of the data. The regulator does not agree with this, but the actual legal position is not settled.
So, what do we need to do?
The first thing to do would be to carry out a cookie audit to make sure you know exactly what cookies are in use, and the purpose and duration of each. In this audit:
- Identify any of the cookies that are “strictly necessary”, and so don’t need consent.
- Identify any 3rd party cookies – in the case of 3rd party cookies, such as Google analytics or affiliate networks, while it is the third party that requires the consent as it is their cookie, in practice the third party requires that the site owner gets the consent on their behalf.
- Review the consent mechanism you have on the site to make sure it is compliant – everyone seems to do this differently, and some ways are more compliant than others.
- Finally, you may need to carry out a data protection impact assessment under the GDPR – if the cookies involve personal data and are used for profiling for marketing or other purposes, then you may need to carry out a DPIA. Even if this is not strictly required, it can be good practice to do so to ensure that any risks are identified and any appropriate measure implemented to mitigate those risks.
How to get consent?
The consent required under PECR follows the GDPR standard, meaning it must be freely given, specific, informed, and an unambiguous indication of the end user’s wishes through a clear affirmative action. There are a few key points to bear in mind:
- As above, there is no need to get consent for “strictly necessary” cookies. And there is no need therefore for a pre-ticked box for these cookies.
- Where consent is needed, do not use pre-ticked boxes; this would not be a valid consent, as consent has to be signified by a positive step such as ticking the box.
- This is important – do not set cookies before you get the opt-in, so you may need to do some technical work on the site to make sure that this is the case.
- Provide clear and comprehensive information. This is because, if the information is not clear and comprehensive then, as well as breaching the transparency requirement, it will undermine the consent as it will not be a “fully informed” consent.
- Do not bundle multiple consents into one; ideally, there would granular consents for each cookie, or at least each category.
- There should also be an “Accept All” and a “Reject All” button.
- Provide an option for users to revisit consents that they have given.
The new ePrivacy Regulation
A new ePrivacy Regulation has been on the horizon since the GDPR came into force but has been batted back and forth in Europe since 2017 without agreement being reached. However, the text was finally agreed in February 2021 and it is now going to the European Parliament.
The objective of the ePrivacy Regulation is to update the ePrivacy Directive – which is nearly 20 years old – and to bring it into line with GDPR. It aligns with the substantial fines possible under the GDPR, whereas at the moment fines under PECR are limited to £0.5m. The ePrivacy Regulation also allows for individuals to bring claims which could involve class action claims.
Also, like the GDPR, the regulation provides for extraterritorial application, so it will apply to businesses outside the EU insofar as it relates to end users in the EU. However, unlike the GDPR, it does not require that EU users are specifically targeted — the extraterritorial application is triggered as soon as users in the EU are implicated regardless of whether there was an intention to direct activities at the EU market.
So far as the cookie requirement is concerned:
- There is still a need for affirmative consent, except in a number of circumstances which are a little broader than at present, and will include cookies for the purpose of audience measuring (e.g., web analytics) and for IT security purposes.
- The regulation also allows for consent to be given by selecting technical settings in the browser, for example by having a whitelist of sites which the user consents to dropping cookies. But browsers will need to develop to facilitate this.
- Also, users who have given consent must be reminded every 12 months of their right to withdraw consent.
Once the ePrivacy Regulation is finalised there will be a two year transition period before it comes into force.
As regards the UK, following Brexit, the ePrivacy Regulation will not automatically extend to the UK, but the UK may amend PECR to align it to the ePrivacy Regulation, especially in so far as the Regulation is more business-friendly and provides additional exceptions to the cookie rule. Also, because of the extraterritorial application of the Regulation, it will effectively apply to all UK businesses as regards end users in the EU.
If you have any questions about these issues in relation to your own organisation, please contact a member of the team or speak with your usual Fox Williams contact.