EU orders member states to implement cookie law, or else

The European Commission has taken the first legal steps to force 20 EU countries to protect consumers' privacy

The European Commission has started legal action against 20 European Union member states that have failed to take measures to implement new rules protecting consumers' data online.

The deadline for implementing the E.U. telecoms package in national law was May 25, but to date only Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Malta, Sweden and the U.K. have introduced the new laws in full.

The sticking point in the telecoms package appears to be the ePrivacy Directive, which aims to give Internet users more information about the data stored about them. Before storing cookies to collect data on a user's computer, companies must obtain the user's "explicit consent." Internet users must also be given information on what the data collected is to be used for.

In many cases cookies are used to target advertising based on browsing history. The only exception from the "consent" rule is if cookies are "strictly necessary" for a service requested by the user, for example, when a user clicks the 'add to basket' button to buy goods from a website.

What "consent" to cookies requires in practice is not defined in detail in the directive and many counties are hoping that, in principle, a browser set to "accept cookies" implies consent. Even the U.K.'s Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, admits that his office's guidelines are "a work in progress."

Member states have had two years to implement the revised rules against tracking cookies and a majority of E.U. member states have informed the Commission that some sort of legislative process is under way. However, if the 20 countries contacted by the Commission on Tuesday fail to reply within two months, or the response is unsatisfactory, the Commission can send a formal request to implement the legislation and ultimately refer them to the European Court of Justice.

"The best outcome would be that they complete the necessary procedures to adopt the legislation in question as quickly as possible so that the Commission does not have to pursue legal proceedings any further. It would be the best outcome for the member states and it would be the best outcome for all those consumers who stand to benefit from the legislation," said Jonathan Todd, spokesman for the Digital Agenda.

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