Websites in the EU which use lines of browser-readable text known as cookies can only do so with users' consent, and they must provide information about the use to site users.

This guide was last updated in January 2019. It previously appeared on the AboutCookies.org site, which like Out-Law.com was run by Pinsent Masons.

 

This is part of Out-Law's guide to cookies. EU law requires website operators to obtain consent to the use of cookies, other than those that are strictly necessary cookies, and provide users with information about how to manage and delete cookies.

We provide that here and many organisations link to our guidance rather than increase already-lengthy privacy policies. You can too, there is no charge for this and you don't need our specific permission. We used to provide this at AboutCookies.org, but now provide it here instead.


The EU's E-Privacy Directive of 2002 required that website visitors be given certain information about cookies.

From 26 May 2011 the law changed meaning that in addition to the provision of certain information visitors must give their consent to the placing of cookies. In the UK this change was implemented by the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) (Amendment) Regulations 2011 (PECR).

From 25 May 2018 the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force. It says that consent for data processing has to be given by users through a "clear affirmative action" and it must be freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous.  

Because each EU country has some discretion in how it implements a Directive, the cookie laws in other European countries may differ from those of the UK which are set out in PECR.

PECR

The relevant rules are found in amended regulation 6, which reads as follows:

6. - (1) Subject to paragraph (4), a person shall not store or gain information, or to gain access to information stored, in the terminal equipment of a subscriber or user unless the requirements of paragraph (2) are met.

(2) The requirements are that the subscriber or user of that terminal equipment -

(a) is provided with clear and comprehensive information about the purposes of the storage of, or access to, that information; and

(b) has given his or her consent.

(3) Where an electronic communications network is used by the same person to store or access information in the terminal equipment of a subscriber or user on more than one occasion, it is sufficient for the purposes of this regulation that the requirements of paragraph (2) are met in respect of the initial use.

(3A) For the purposes of paragraph (2), consent may be signified by a subscriber who amends or sets controls on the internet browser which the subscriber uses or by using another application or programme to signify consent.

(4) Paragraph (1) shall not apply to the technical storage of, or access to, information -

(a) for the sole purpose of carrying out the transmission of a communication over an electronic communications network; or

(b) where such storage or access is strictly necessary for the provision of an information society service requested by the subscriber or user.

What does this mean?

PECR means that a website operator must not store information or gain access to information stored in the computer or other web-enabled device of a user unless the user "is provided with clear and comprehensive information about the purposes of the storage of, or access to, that information" and "has given his or her consent". The consent requirement in the UK Regulations replaces the previous position which provided that visitors should be given the option to refuse cookies.

The only cookies that do not need users' consent are those that are necessary to fulfil the user's request. That will cover, for example, the use of cookies to remember the contents of a user's shopping basket as they move between pages on a website. Other cookies, including those used to count visitors to a site and those used to serve advertising, will require consent. So will third party cookies that are used on the website.

The consent requirement has been the subject of much discussion but it is difficult to see how anything other than prior consent will comply with the wording of the UK Regulations.

ICO guidance says: "If you do need consent, then – to be valid – consent must be knowingly and freely given, clear and specific…it must involve some form of very clear positive action – for example, ticking a box, clicking an icon, or sending an email – and the person must fully understand that they are giving you consent."

The GDPR says that consent is "any freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous indication of the data subject's wishes by which he or she, by a statement or by a clear affirmative action, signifies agreement to the processing of personal data relating to him or her”.

The phrase "by a statement or by a clear affirmative action" was newly introduced by the GDPR and increases the burden on organisations to ensure that a user has taken a specific, measurable action to give consent, such as ticking a box or clicking to accept a message.

Its cookies guidance says: "You need to be confident that your users fully understand that their actions will result in specific cookies being set, and have taken a clear and deliberate action to give consent. This must be more than simply continuing to use the website. To ensure that consent is freely given, users should be able to disable cookies, and you should make this easy to do."

Although the ICO's guidance suggests a number of methods to obtain consent it stops short of providing definitive guidance on how to achieve compliance, leaving it to businesses and organisations to review their use of cookies and consider how they might be able to obtain the necessary consent.

Both the ICO and the UK government have not ruled out the use of browser settings to achieve compliance in the future, but the ICO advises businesses to obtain consent some other way.

The guidance states: "At present, most browser settings are not sophisticated enough to allow you to assume that the user has given consent to allow your website to set a cookie. Also, not everyone who visits your site will do so using a browser. They may, for example, have used an application on their mobile device. So, for now we are advising organisations which use cookies or other means of storing information on a user's equipment that they have to gain consent some other way".

As a result, a number of companies have developed cookie tools and privacy management software which allow an individual to set their cookies preferences by enabling them, for example, to reject the use of analytical, marketing or advertising cookies. Such tools are also a mechanism through which the website owner can seek to obtain and record the individuals' consent so that they can evidence such consent at a later date. These tools also allow an individual to change their preferences. This is important as an individual has the right to withdraw their consent as easily as they have given it. As such tools and software are relatively new to the market they have not as yet been given any regulatory or supervisory authority approval.

Penalty for non-compliance

The Commissioner's Data Protection Regulatory Action Policy sets out the ICO's approach on sanctions. In deciding whether enforcement action is appropriate the ICO will be concerned with the impact of the breach of the cookie law on the privacy and other rights of website users, not just with if there has been a technical breach of PECR.

PECR currently carries a maximum fine of £500,000 for serious breaches. It is anticipated that this power will only be used in limited circumstances. Before this the fine was £5,000 and companies may have been willing to run the risk but with these increased powers the result of enforcement action is potentially more severe.

A new ePrivacy Regulation is currently being debated within Europe. Under this proposal the fines under PECR are likely to come into line with the fines now available under the UK Data Protection Act 2018, which implements the GDPR. The fines will then be substantially higher.

It is important to remember that consent under PECR applies where a cookie, other than a strictly necessary cookie, is used irrespective of whether personal data is collected by that cookie.

The Data Protection Act can also apply

The UK's Data Protection Act of 2018 derives from the GDPR and demands that where personal information is collected then data subjects, including internet users, should be told of this collection or information about it should be made available to them.

Even where it is possible to anonymise information, the information may still be classed as personal data under the Act if it can be traced back or put together with other information to identify the individual.

Therefore the requirements of the 2018 Act are that the owner of a website using cookies, the controller, must make its identity clear, the purposes for it having the information and anything else necessary in the circumstances to make the processing fair. This information must also be provided when personal data are collected from third parties.

Collection of personal data must be for explicit purposes; the data must be kept up to date, and consent for it must be freely given and clear.