Consent to Cookie: Analysis of European ePrivacy Regulations

This article is an analysis of the newly passed ‘Regulation on Privacy and Electronic Communications’ passed by the European Union.

A huge part of our daily life now revolves around the usage of websites and communication mediums like Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, etc. The suddenness with which these services have become popular left law-making authorities with little opportunity to give directions to these companies and regulate their actions. For the large part these services worked on the basis of self-regulation and on the terms and conditions which consumers accepted. These services gave people access to their machinery for free, in return for personal data about the consumer. This information is later sold to advertisers who later on send ‘personalised’ advertisements to the consumer on the basis of the information received.

With growing consciousness about the large-scale misuse that can take place if the data falls into wrong hands, citizens have started to seek accountability on part of these websites. With increasing usage of online services in our daily lives and growing awareness about the importance of privacy, the pressure on governments to make stricter privacy laws is increasing.

The nature of data that these services collect from the consumer can be extremely personal, and with no checks on the nature of data that can be collected, there is a possibility for abuse. It can be sold with no accountability in the handling of such information. Regulations such as those related to data collection, data retention, data sharing and advertising are required, and for the most part have been lacking in almost all countries. The European Union however has been in a constant tussle with internet giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon, over regulations, as though these companies have operations in Europe, they are not under its jurisdiction. In fact they are not under the jurisdiction of any countries except the ones they are based in. The EU on 10 January 2017 released a proposal on the Privacy of individuals while using Electronic communications which will come into force in May 2018.

The objective of the ‘Regulation on Privacy and Electronic Communications’ is to strengthen the data protection framework in the EU. The key highlights of the data protection laws are as follows:

  • Unified set of Rules across EU – These rules and regulations will be valid and enforceable across the European Union and will provide a standard compliance framework for the companies functioning in the Union.
  • Newer Players – Over-the-top services are those services which are being used instead of traditional such as SMS and call. The law seeks to regulate these Over-The-Top services (OTT) such as WhatsApp, Gmail, Viber, Skype, etc., and the communication between Internet-of-Things devices which have been outside the legal framework as the existing laws and regulations are not wide enough in scope to cover the technology used.
  • Cookies – A cookie is information about the user’s activity on the website, such as what is there in the user’s shopping cart. The new regulations make it easy for the end-users to give consent for end-users for cookies on web browsers and making the users more in control of the kind of data that is being shared.
  • Protection against spam – The proposal bans unsolicited electronic communication from mediums like email, phone calls, SMS, etc. This proposal basically places a restriction on spam, mass sending of mails or messages with advertisements with or without the end-user consenting to receive those advertisements.
  • Emphasis on Consent – The regulation lays strict emphasis on the idea of user-consent in terms of any data being used for any purpose that is not strictly necessary to provide that service. The consent in this case should be ‘freely given, specific, informed, active and unambiguous consent expressed by a statement or clear affirmative action’.
  • Limited power to use metadata – Unless the data is necessary for a legal purpose, the service provider will either erase the metadata or make the data anonymous. Metadata is data about data – it is used by the Internet Service Providers, websites and governments to make a summary of the data available to create patters or generalised behaviour to use specific data easily.

The Regulation has far-reaching effects in terms of taking into its fold businesses which were earlier not a part of the regulations and would cover any technological company which provides electronic communications services in the Union. This would require businesses to sustain costs to redesign their communication system and ensuring that their future software updates are designed in such a way that the users’ consent is taken.

The main argument raised by the proposal in favour of bringing in the new Regulation is that an increasing number of users want control over their data and want to know where their data is going and who it is accessed by. This is because of the growing consciousness about the far-reaching effects of providing huge quantities of personal information to private entities with little or no check on the use of the data.

The biggest relief given to both the users and service providers was the change in the cookie policy. The previous regulation made it mandatory for the website to take consent before any cookie was placed on the user’s computer. This would have led to the user being bombarded with requests on the computer. The new regulation lets the user choose the settings for the cookies from a range of high-to-low privacy while installing the browser and after every six months they would receive a notification that they can change the setting.

There is however the issue of how the websites will know that the user has opted out of receiving targeted advertisements. There is a possibility of using a tool called Do-No-Track – a tool when turned on sends out signals to a web browser, that the user does not wish to be tracked. The system was utilised in the past, but given the lack of consensus in the industry as to the method of usage and the fact that a large number of websites simply ignored the DNT signals, it lost its utility. This Regulation will give the much necessary push for the usage of this system as would be useful, because if a user chooses not be tracked the websites have to respect that choice.

The Regulation also makes consent the central feature of communications system. Earlier consent was said to be implied, that if the individual is using the operators service was considered as consent to allowing the operator to collect information about the end-user. This could have a huge effect on the way these entities earn revenue where in some cases the sole method of earning revenue is advertising. Technology companies have to dole out huge amounts of money to pay to run their servers and for the staff which works on maintaining the website and researching on newer technology to improve their services. Companies which are dependent on advertising could lose a large amount of the revenue which they get if a large number of its users opt-out of providing information and receiving targeted advertisements.

Several critics from the industry argue that the new framework will make it extremely difficult for the operators as they do not necessarily classify data. The multiple layers of data and information collected are simply classified as ‘analytics’. The websites do not always know the purpose the data is going to be used until after it is used. This would make it difficult for the operator when it comes to deciding what comes under the law. In addition, the operators depend on third-parties to collect the information for them. The regulation makes it abundantly clear that the information to be collected should be the bare minimum that is required to provide the services and data that is required for web audience measuring. The third-parties also would be protected under this law, if the information collected by the website necessary to provide those services or if the user has already given consent. A more transparent system instead would make the system accountable as it would give a factual basis to assess whether the operator is complying with reasonable ethical standards.

The users also have an option under the law not to receive unsolicited calls, messages and mails. These kinds of calls, messages and mails are a huge nuisance with the companies doing this facing no liability. Only UK among the countries in the EU has strict laws and hefty fines for such kind of direct advertisements. This system would require the prior consent of the user when obtaining the information and before the sending of advertisements, and inform them about the nature of marketing and the nature of withdrawal. Even though consent is given to the operator the law mandates the communication of the procedure of opting opt-out to the user in clear terms. The operator will also have to have a prefix for all the marketing calls. This is similar to India, where the TRAI initiated Do-Not-Disturb system gives the user an option to block different kinds of unsolicited and automated advertisements through calls and messages.

The Regulation can form a benchmark for the other countries. The regulation with its central focus being the privacy and consent of the user, places a requirement for transparency and accountability of the operator – a necessary condition to run any organisation providing such services. While the changes may seem radical in terms of the costs that the industry as a whole may incur, given the sensitive nature of the information that they deal with, such regulations will and should become a norm for all the players in the market and any new players who wish to join it.

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