Cookies are small files that websites send to your device that the sites then use to monitor you and remember certain information about you — like what’s in your shopping cart on an e-commerce site, or your login information. These pop-up cookie notices all over the internet are well-meaning and supposed to promote transparency about your online privacy.
But in the end, they’re not doing much: Most of us just tediously click “yes” and move on. If you reject the cookie tracking, sometimes, the website won’t work. But most of the time, you can just keep browsing. They’re not too different from the annoying pop-up ads we all ignore when we’re online.
Cookies alerts are supposed to give you more agency over your privacy. But chances are, you’re clicking yes and moving on. Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images
These cookie disclosures are also a symptom of one of the internet’s ongoing and fundamental failings when it comes to online privacy and who can access and resell users’ data, and by extension, who can use it to track them across the internet and in real life.
The proliferation of such alerts was largely triggered by two different regulations in Europe: the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a sweeping data privacy law enacted in the European Union in May 2018; and the ePrivacy Directive, which was first passed in 2002 and then updated in 2009. They, and the cookie alerts that resulted, have plenty of good intentions. But they’re ineffectual.
“I would say they’re generally pretty useless so far,” Shane Green, CEO of private data sharing platform digi.me, told Recode. “We’re back to 1999 all over again with pop-ups everywhere, and it’s beyond annoying.”
Why this, why now, briefly explained
The rise of alerts about cookies is the result of a confluence of events, mainly out of the EU. But in the bigger picture, these alerts underscore an ongoing debate over digital privacy, including whether asking users to opt in or opt out of data collection is better, and the question of who should own data and be responsible for protecting it.