ICO warning on website cookies 

The UK’s Information Commissioner says top sites are taking the biscuit with data protection law, and could face enforcement action. 

When browsing websites, we’re often asked if we’ll accept ‘cookies’. These are small text files loaded onto your computer or device which then collect data about you. Typically, cookies are used to track a user’s online activity so that advertisers can target them more accurately. Cookies can gather a great deal of information and since this can include personal data, their use is governed by privacy and data protection law. 

baked cookies

Photo by No Revisions

In the past, the Information Commissioner’s Office has issued guidance on the use of cookies. This includes the fact that it must be as easy to ‘reject all’ advertising cookies as it is to accept them. If a user chooses to reject all, the website can continue to display advertising – it just can’t be tailored to the individual browsing.  

But, as part of its wider work to ensure people’s rights are upheld by the online advertising industry, the ICO has warned that some leading sites do not provide users with a fair choice in deciding whether they are tracked for this kind of personalised advertising.  

The ICO has duly written to the companies running many of the UK’s most visited sites, detailing this concern and giving the companies 30 days to ensure that their websites now comply with the law. In January 2024, it will publish an update on this initiative, and share details of any companies that still do not address it concerns. Enforcement action will then be taken. 

Stephen Almond, Executive Director of Regulatory Risk at ICO, says: ‘We’ve all been surprised to see adverts online that seem designed specifically for us – an ad for a hotel when you’ve just booked a flight abroad, for instance. Our research shows that many people are concerned about companies using their personal information to target them with ads without their consent. 

‘Gambling addicts may be targeted with betting offers based on their browsing record, women may be targeted with distressing baby adverts shortly after miscarriage and someone exploring their sexuality may be presented with ads that disclose their sexual orientation. 

‘Many of the biggest websites have got this right. We’re giving companies who haven’t managed that yet a clear choice: make the changes now, or face the consequences.’ 

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