Socitm on the cookie issue

After a couple of calls this week it seems like my recent piece here on cookie-gate wrong footed some folks a tad.

For example, when asked today what Socitm’s view is about cookies on web sites, Martin Greenwood said he was “not sure we (Socitm) have one right now” and that he had “known about it before and I’ve asked one or two people for their opinions, but I don’t’ have an a opinion yet”.

I suppose with ‘Better Connected 2011’ due for imminent publication ( March 1st) he has been busy.  A reasonable excuse for inactivity you may think. The issue is pressing however, as the legislation has the potential to bite chunks out of the business Socitm get from selling their ‘Web site take up service’ which Greenwood agreed uses cookies. Assuming of course they believe they should comply.

One thing is clear though, if Socitm pedal a service to Councils which uses cookies then they aren’t going to be in a rush to criticise you for using cookies on your own sites – until of course they sort the issue out for themselves. And given the level of activity that doesn’t look like any time soon.

In the meanwhile commercial companies who rely on cookies to deliver their business are moving, with commendable alacrity, towards compliance once the interpretation of the law becomes more clear.

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A flurry in the bird coop. Crumbs!

There’s a flurry in the bird coop today. Those sly foxes at Sitemorse set the residents a flapping.

And the reason for them being discombobulated so? The impending placement of EU regulations on cookies, and their use, by web publishers.

A law passed in 2009 is due to become enforceable in May of this year. Wrapped up in a confection of seemingly disconnected legislation is a piece of ‘nut-case’ brittle just for us to crack our teeth on.

At first reading it seems we shall have to ask everybody ( everybody new to  our sites that is – and how would we know that without the use of cookies!) if they would accept the use of cookies in their visit. And of course if they don’t then they will be asked again next time, and again, and again. Barking mad.

You can read the law here… Tedious in the extreme. Best look here… and here… for a clearer view of what this really means.

It seems that even Struan Robertson web law guru ( then of Pinsent Masons – now of Google I believe) thought the legislation was at best badly drafted.

Robertson is quoted here… as saying:

“However, the problem here is the law itself. It is a shambles. It’s ambiguous and potentially contradictory and unhelpful not just to businesses but also to consumers. The lawmakers should have found a way to safeguard consumers that didn’t burden them with making decisions on complex relationships and technologies, and that didn’t set up a user barrier at the front door of every website.”

Our understanding is the ‘ambiguity’ mentioned by Robertson does not seem to have stopped the UK lawmakers from cutting and pasting the EU legislation into UK law ( still to be verified at time of writing). In France the legislators are considering the option that browsers ask the user every 3 months if they wish to accept cookies. If each country decides to make a different interpretation of this EU law then the resultant cookie soup will surely make the whole process inoperable, resulting in no meaningful change to the way cookies operate now.

DON’T PANIC 1
There is wriggle room, as you would expect from something described as a shambles.In the recital to the 2009 law it says…

“Exceptions to the obligation to provide information and offer the right to refuse should be limited to those situations where the technical storage or access is strictly necessary for the legitimate purpose of enabling the use of a specific service explicitly requested by the subscriber or user.”

That’s OK then. Isn’t it? The recital goes further, saying…

“Where it is technically possible and effective, in accordance with the relevant provisions of Directive 95/46/EC, the user’s consent to processing may be expressed by using the appropriate settings of a browser or other application.”

That’s even better. No?

(Recitals are meant to explain the lawmakers’ rationale and sometimes they’re used to resolve ambiguities. They are not meant to contradict the business end of the Directive – and this recital sounds like a contradiction. Wriggle room indeed.)

Needless to say the Advertising folks have taken this to be as instructive as a green-light. I’m not sure the ICO, if that is the authority tasked to pursue us for the £5000 fines for breaking the rules, will see it that way. Here is what the IAB (Interactive Advertising Board) has stated…

“the law now clarifies that websites can rely on browser controls and similar applications to define the acceptance of cookies. Publishers and online marketers support this approach because greater transparency, user-friendly information and easy cookies-management will increase consumer trust and confidence.”

However, PANIC, because “Cookie consent can’t be implied from Browser settings say privacy watchdog.”

Read the article here…

DON’T PANIC 2

Have you noticed how most of this appears to be about advertising and the resultant cookies? I can see why those in commerce would be troubled by this legislation but, and it’s an uninformed attempt at sanity type of but, wouldn’t most, if not all Local government web sites, be  covered by this…

Exceptions to the obligation to provide information and offer the right to refuse should be limited to those situations where the technical storage or access is strictly necessary for the legitimate purpose of enabling the use of a specific service explicitly requested by the subscriber or user”? You decide.

Clearly we are going to have to provide a more robust and clearly stated cookie policy – probably making that more visible on our site too.

As with all legislation, and particularly when this is so apparently badly drafted  ( described here… as  being  a “monumental regulatory failure”) strict compliance is difficult, if not impossible, so a strong attempt at complying with the spirit may be sufficient, at least until the legislators sort themselves out. And when will that be? (Gallic shrug) It’s Europe!

First published 12.00 Thursday 20th January.

What price ‘Better Connected’ when the money has gone.

Budget cuts howl through the previously warm and snug corridors of local government like the arctic blast the country  succumbed to during the latter part of 2010. Minus 12 degC outside and chilling decisions being made inside.

Despite being the major means of dealing with councils, cuts are being made to web budgets. Lincolnshire, for example, cut budgets for web services before I left in early December and there’s probably more to come.

In my opinion it’s a short sighted view taken by some who are digitally and customer service illiterate. The web has proven to be the most cost effective method of dealing with the public. Moreover it’s the way that an increasing number of customers want to deal with councils.  Is it foolish then to curtail web provision’s ability to continue to grow as the main focus of customer service provision? Yes, especially as currently calls made to call centres are falling and web interaction with councils steadily rises .

I don’t suppose Lincolnshire will be the only council slashing web budgets, be that in development or in publishing power. Others will similarly make those chicken-licken style decisions and will leave the public all the poorer for it. That’s sad.

Having said that, just like any other service there must be things the web provides – or that are provided on the web – that are a luxury. Each web manager should take a long look at what is provided on their sites and make cost/value judgements on whether those fripperies  should stay.

British LG web sites are thought of as being amongst the best, if not the best, LG web sites in the world. And in some part ”Better Connected”, the yearly review by SOCITM, has been responsible for raising standards. There does come a point though when you’re near the top of the game, where raising the standard ever so marginally  – to meet some imagined need of SOCITM’s and thereby fulfill their requirement for Better Connected to exist and to make money – is just too expensive, and cannot, surely, be cost justified.

I would argue, especially in these trying times, enough is enough. Care not what SOCITM, in their desire to make a profit, say about you. It’s just too expensive a price to pay.

  • If you are providing good quality, up to date information via a readily navigable and/or easily searchable web site;
  • if your ethos is to be open and transparent and your web site demonstrates this;
  • if you let your site be driven by your clients by asking them to complain about a bad service or even lack of service  (remember you learn nothing from those who compliment you. It’s only the complainers who really drive you forward – read ‘What would Google do’ by Jeff Jarvis);
  • if your council, particularly officers,  think of  the web as the first method of dealing with the customer and provide the services and information accordingly,
  • generally if you think first about what the clients want, as opposed to what the council- members and officers – want, and deliver that via your web site, then you will have the basis of an excellent site – no matter what SOCITM may say to the contrary.

SOCITM would argue they have been the ones who have driven up standards. As I’ve said I lean towards agreement. However, having got us up to the top of the tree lets see how they can lead us down to more cost effective branches. If indeed you really need any leading. I would argue you don’t.

Peter Barton