European Legislators Rethink Stance on Cookies

In a startling about-face from earlier, stricter proposals, a committee of the European Parliament approved changes to controversial legislation, setting “opt-out” as the standard for cookie-based online profiling.

In a vote on the latest amendments to a hotly-debated, two-year-old directive, the Parliament’s Committee on Citizens’ Freedoms and Rights, Justice and Home Affairs approved online data regulations that stipulated that Web sites and marketers shouldn’t be required to ask users to “opt in” to cookie-based profiling.

Instead, the group said in a statement on Thursday that it believed “it would suffice merely to guarantee users the possibility of accessing clear information on the purposes of cookies.”

That stands as a departure from the Parliament’s position in November, when it approved a version of the directive that recommended member countries ban cookies unless consumers have explicitly opted-in to online tracking.

The modifications to the bill also contradict the EU’s Council of Ministers, the region’s other lawmaking body. In December — after heavy lobbying against the directive by the regional unit of the Interactive Advertising Bureau — the Council approved a less-severe version of the Parliament’s measure, which simply gave consumers the right to know about cookies before they are set.

Some portions of the directive’s previous version did survive the Parliamentary Committee’s approval process, however. One such clause essentially leaves it up to EU member countries to decide whether e-mail marketing should be prohibited unless consumers explicitly opt-in to receive it.

That clause also forbids marketers from using fax, SMS or automated calling systems without prior, explicit approval by the intended recipient.

Still, this week’s new developments highlight European legislators’ reversal on the hotly-debated issue, which would have significantly curtailed online profiling as well as hampered other cookie-based activities, like campaign effectiveness tracking.

The anti-spam and anti-cookie portions of the legislation have been argued about for close to two years, with Parliamentarians often finding themselves at odds with peers, with their counterparts in the Council, and with influential trade groups like the IAB.

The Freedoms and Rights Committee’s amended directive is likely to be voted on during the Parliament’s May session, where it must pass with a majority of 314 votes. The outcome of the vote is highly uncertain, spokespeople say, considering the “substantial number of amendments [that] passed by a only slight majority within the Committee.”

The directive will go into effect only after it is ratified by both the Parliament and the Council of Ministers.

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