On May 25th 2011, the EU will be implementing a new online privacy directive which will affect how businesses use cookies, headers and similar systems to track user behaviour and gather information. Behavioural advertising has attracted serious criticism, and this directive from the EU dictates that “explicit consent” must be obtained where privacy of a user are concerned. Other countries are looking at “Do Not Track” in different ways.

The Internet Advertising Bureau UK specific site has been set up to help both users and businesses understand behavioural advertising. However, the UK guidelines being created by the DCMS (Department of Culture, Media and Sport) are still being drawn up and look unlikely to be ready by the deadline of May 25th.

Users can already prevent cookies (which are a small, simple text file) being tracked or installed on their computers; however, cookies are often used to remember log ins and other personal data which makes accessing a frequently visited website easier.

The data harvesting by advertisers though is the main one that the new directive is targeting, and many users are likely to find that as the directive bites, websites are going to need to get permission to track data, even if that is purely for a log in. This could mean that websites resort to using pop-up windows to get that consent, and many users surf the internet with pop-ups blocked, either by their browser or using a Pop-up Blocker.

Having to provide consent for every website you visit could prove to be a massive headache for users, but a momentary boon for advertisers, who may decide to use pop-up windows to capture the attention of users during the first few months of this directive.

The browser developers started to react to consumer feelings about behavioural ads and privacy long before the potential Do Not Track laws, so Firefox has a plug-in that allows users to surf the Net in relative privacy, and Google has announced a Chrome extension. However, there are multiple ways to track user data, and even as the browsers and regulations attempt to tackle the problem, it is likely that new and novel ways around the laws and software are developed. After all, it is this information which is so valuable to advertisers, and many consumers do not actually mind their behaviour being tracked as it results in more relevant ads and content being served up.

For any business which collects data about user behaviour, now is the time to start considering how you will get consent from each user who visits your website, and how you will resolve the technical issues of implementing the directive. Or to start complaining about a Policy Directive which could do more harm than good to the online industry in Europe.

For marketers and internet marketing companies, it will be important to understand the regulations, and ensure that all clients are aware of the directive and are adhering to it. Complaints about websites which are flouting the directive could mean penalties, but for now at least, attempts to conform with the policy may mean that any judgement is less harsh until the DCMS guidelines are in place. Or until it is hopefully overturned, or becomes a far more sensible piece of legislation.

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About the author:

A practising internet marketing consultant since 1996, Lindsey Annison helps companies improve their website marketing, online PR and information architecture. Lindsey is also a qualified adult education lecturer and author. As co-founder of the Access to Broadband Campaign, she has been instrumental in the provision of high-speed internet access to rural areas in the UK. Lindsey is also a past winner of Silicon.com's Outstanding Contribution to UK Technology