Tomorrow a law known as the E.U. Cookie Directive will go into effect across the European Union – but the ramifications will be felt world-wide. The intent of this far-reaching privacy law is to give online consumers the ability to opt-out of all website activity tracking and to offer more transparency on what is tracked if consumers opt-in for cookies. With potential fines of up to $15,000 ( €12,000) per incident and a pretty loose definition of what constitutes an individual “incident,” fines for non-compliance can add up quickly.
To make matters more complex for global firms trying to comply with the law, like most things EU, the rules are not consistent from country to country. While the law states that consumers must be given the ability to opt-out of tracking, the UK and Ireland have taken the position that consumers must opt-in for tracking. The law is made more costly to implement and more confusing for consumers by breaking the definition of cookies into four categories. Now consumers don’t just have to say “yes” or “no” every time they visit a new website, they have to decide on chocolate, peanut butter, vanilla or strawberry – or worse, four flavors that they have never tried before (made with unpronounceable ingredients.) There is a very good article by Shaina Boone of Experience Matters providing technical details on the four types of cookies and suggesting ways to avoid fines.
While the focus of most discussion and debate on the EU Cookie Directive has focused on the impact on digital marketing, there is a major impact on general customer service. Forget about prospecting – think about customer retention. Forget about the ability to market new stuff to consumers; think about the impact of not being able to customize the landing page on your financial services site for a customer by using cookies. All that preference based personalization can be accomplished easily with cookies will need to be stored on the firm’s side of the login and tied to the account in order to serve customers who say “no thank you” to cookies. Most companies are not set up for that and the cost of changes to a Customer Information File can be massive.
If you ask the typical consumer if this type of privacy law is a good idea – they would probably say “yes” because they don’t really have any idea how cookies impact their web browsing experience. I think this is a great opportunity for someone to launch a “cookie tester” so that a consumer can test the experience of having all of the cookies removed from their machine (or cookies of a particular type) with the ability to restore them or delete them at the end of the test. Perhaps a solution that would allow firms to have visitors to their websites test the browsing experience with and without cookies before making their opt-in or opt-out choice.