It really could have been a lot worse, obviously, if some
translator deep in the bowels of the European Union labyrinth in
Brussels had not translated the phrase "opt out" into the Italian
equivalent of "opt in".
And vice versa. In the looking glass world of Brussels, there's usually
some sort of perverse symmetry at work.
However, this almost routine waste of taxpayers' money may actually work
in our favour.
The mis-translation occurred within amendments to an EU directive on
telecoms privacy - thoroughly confusing Italian members of the European
Parliament and causing a procedural delay while the amendments were
re-translated. It's thanks to this that we have slightly more time to
address a more monstrous piece of nonsense hidden within this amusing
The problems are all down to a 57-year-old Dutch MEP called Wim van
Velzen, a man who, according to some observers in Brussels, was only
recently informed of the existence of these new-fangled technological
instruments known as "personal computers". This is possibly something of
an exaggeration because van Velzen previously sat on a Brussels
committee whose remit covered technology research.
However, what is unquestionable is that van Velzen has little notion of
how the world of e-commerce works, and because of his success in having
an amendment added to the privacy directive, internet "cookies" may be
redefined as personal data.
Sounds rather obscure and technical, doesn't it? Not exactly a major
earthquake, you might think. But you'd be wrong. Cookies are the data
tags that internet sites leave on your hard drive when you visit a
When you revisit a site, the cookie it left previously allows the site
to recognise the fact that you have returned and it can also be used to
offer you time-saving shortcuts - for instance helping you to remember
They are a key part in managing the customer's relationship with an
e-commerce site. But if cookies are redefined under the van Velzen
proposal, users would have to give "prior explicit consent" (in other
words, the concept of "opt in" that so confused the EU translators)
every time a website wanted to serve a cookie on to their machines. The
"opt in" notion is like asking people to fill out a form every time they
want to enter a high-street shop. It's a huge hassle and, obviously,
could wreak vast damage on an already vulnerable industry.
This has understandably horrified - and united - industry trade groups
in the UK. Not for the first time, it may now be necessary to knock a
few heads together in Brussels. As a first step, the Internet
Advertising Bureau has joined forces with the Institute of Practitioners
in Advertising and the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers in
writing to the UK's e-commerce minister, Douglas Alexander. Equivalent
trade bodies in other European countries are also mobilising.
Geoff Russell, the director for media affairs at the IPA, says: "It
would be a tragedy if the EU, through a fundamental misunderstanding of
the role and benefits of cookies, were to cripple one of the most
exciting new media in the market today."
Alan McCulloch, the chairman of the IPA's digital marketing group, puts
it more starkly: "The commercial impact of this directive is a death
blow to internet advertising in the UK and a multimillion Euro bill for
companies using e-commerce in Europe."
Martina King, the managing director of Yahoo! UK and Ireland, argues
that concerned consumers can already set their browsers to reject or
present legislation. If used responsibly, the consumer has nothing to
The error has been spotted. And with a whole battalion of militant Brits
marching on Brussels, it'll all be over by Christmas. Except, that it
does seem rather flimsy to base a strategy on writing a letter to a UK
And there is a definite danger of underestimating the extent of the
challenge ahead. Van Velzen waited until the last possible moment before
throwing this particular spanner into the works - and his amendment was
not properly debated before being added to what in Brussels' procedural
jargon is referred to as "a position". Once wrinkles like this find
their way into the fabric of the legislative process, they can be
infuriatingly difficult to iron out.
This position has already passed into the hands of a pool of civil
servants who are looking at whether there are grounds for the new
directive to be rejected by the Council of Telecommunications ministers.
But it won't be easy unless civil servants prove that any of its
provisions falls outside the intended scope of the new legislation.
MEPs this week voted to adopt the amendment, leaving the only hope with
the national experts in the Council Working Group, who can overturn it
before the draft goes to the European Parliament for a second
One source adds: "The European Parliament is crammed with all sorts of
people who like to see themselves as idealists. The truth is that,
putting it politely, they are rather unworldly. There are also people
who have failed in national politics and are seeking a final chance to
make a name.
It is also true that some countries - for instance, the Scandinavians
and Dutch - are rather zealous about what they see as freedom of
He adds: "I hope the e-commerce community doesn't underestimate them.
You can't bully them. You can't patronise them by expecting them
suddenly to recognise the supposed error of their ways. This thing needs