Denham parting shot calls on G7 chiefs to fix cookies

cookie 2The UK data watchdog is aiming to take the global lead in overhauling cookie consent pop-ups, as part of a strategy which it claims will ensure consumers’ privacy is more meaningfully protected and businesses can provide a better web browsing experience.

In what is likely to be the final significant act of Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, whose extended five-tenure ends on October 31 2021, the regulator will today call on fellow G7 data protection and privacy authorities to work collectively on the issue.

Chairing the meeting, Denham will meet the G7 authorities in a virtual two-day event today and tomorrow (September 7 and 8) and will present an idea on how to improve the current cookie consent mechanism, making web browsing smoother and more business friendly while better protecting personal data.

Currently many people automatically select ‘I agree’ when presented with online cookies pop-ups, which means they are not having meaningful control over their personal data.

Denham said: “I often hear people say they are tired of having to engage with so many cookie pop-ups. That fatigue is leading to people giving more personal data than they would like.

“The cookie mechanism is also far from ideal for businesses and other organisations running websites, as it is costly and it can lead to poor user experience. While I expect businesses to comply with current laws, my office is encouraging international collaboration to bring practical solutions in this area.

“There are nearly 2 billion websites out there taking account of the world’s privacy preferences. No single country can tackle this issue alone. That is why I am calling on my G7 colleagues to use our convening power. Together we can engage with technology firms and standards organisations to develop a coordinated approach to this challenge.”

Joined by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) and the World Economic Forum (WEF), each G7 authority will present a specific technology or innovation issue they believe closer cooperation is needed. The event is closely aligned with the G7 “Data Free Flow with Trust” initiative.

The Information Commissioner’s Office will present its vision for the future, where web browsers, software applications and device settings allow people to set lasting privacy preferences of their choosing, rather than having to do that through pop-ups every time they visit a website.

This would ensure people’s privacy preferences are respected and the use of personal data is minimised, while improving users’ browsing experience and removing friction for businesses, the ICO insists.

While it is claimed this approach is already technologically possible and compliant with data protection law, the ICO believes the G7 authorities could have a major impact in encouraging technology firms and standards organisations to further develop and roll out privacy-oriented solutions to this issue.

Denham added:“The digital world brings international opportunities and challenges, but these are currently being addressed by a series of domestic solutions. We need to consider how the work of governments and regulators can be better knitted together, to keep people’s trust in data driven innovation.”

Quite how the ICO’s plans would sit within the UK Government’s stated aim of overhauling British data protection laws is a mystery that only those in Whitehall will know the answer to.

Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden has already suggested that one of the measures to move away from GDPR would be to scrap what he branded “endless” cookie banners many of which are “pointless”.

However, this drew a swift response from data protection experts that cookies fall under the Privacy & Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR), not GDPR, suggesting Dowden was clueless.

In response to the ICO call, Acxiom head of UK privacy and legal Alex Hazell said: “Over the years the call for a better Internet has become louder. For those in the data economy, this means businesses examining the ways in which they can be more transparent about how they’re using data and, vitality, review whether consumers understand it.

“Rather than the tick-box approach to consent, companies can look to move to a ‘legitimate interest’ approach. This empowered approach to data involves the user – increasing transparency and giving them a choice while allowing effective marketing for brands who remain on the hook for appropriate and responsible use of the data.

“After all, communicating with consumers to enable them to understand their own data is the key to the future of this industry.”

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