NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON COOKIES - UK e-commerce is unprepared to let Brussels end the 'cookie'. Brussels is seeking to alter the law and threaten a new industry

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

little document.



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

site.



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

your password.



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

delete cookies. "The use of cookies is already covered sufficiently by

present legislation. If used responsibly, the consumer has nothing to

fear."



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

government minister.



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

reading.



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

information issues."



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

careful handling."



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