The rumpus over attempts by Europe's legislators to restrict the
use of "cookies" as an internet tool is another depressing reminder of
how far away the Continent is from becoming a barrier-free market for
advertising. More than five years after the European Commission
committed itself to a free market in commercial communications, Greece's
ban on television toy advertising and France's outlawing of alcohol
promotion remain to affront such idealism.
Meanwhile, Sweden's failure to secure a Europe-wide ban on TV
advertising to children may have buried the issue for the time being.
But only the foolishly optimistic believe it dead. Now action against
cookies threatens to make the European single market in commercial
communications look even more utopian than ever.
Cookies is the sweet-sounding nickname for the technology which
facilitates the smooth running of any website. They authenticate and
speed up a user's identification and e-commerce transactions. Without
them, visitors would have to re-register their details each time they
visit their favourite sites. But cookies are proving indigestible to the
European Parliament, where one member described them as "spyware".
It is, of course, complete nonsense. Even leaving aside the prospect of
a restriction on cookies causing a £170 million drop in business
turnover, the curtailment would be justified if a major gap in consumer
protection was being plugged. The fact is that cookies not only measure
the effectiveness of online advertising but allow copy to be rotated so
users avoid having to see the same ads time and again. If online
advertising can't be measured, those producing it will pull out,
offloading more cost on to consumers. The result? Fewer site visits as
consumers look elsewhere, allowing US commercial websites to fill the
void as their enfeebled European counterparts are forced to restructure
Internet advertisers know that the sector cannot grow unless consumer
confidence in the medium - and its ability to protect their privacy - is
sustained. There's no point in outlawing the technology. Stopping it
being abused is what is important. Europe's politicians ought to realise
this. The most generous explanation for their action is that they have
misunderstood the important role of cookies in marketing and e-commerce.
The most ungenerous one is that they still cling to the outdated dogma
that casts advertising as a black art.
The industry can do something about the former. But it's pretty
powerless against the latter.