EDITORIAL: EC fear of cookies is ignorant, at best

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

and rebuild.

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The most ungenerous one is that they still cling to the outdated dogma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.


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