What is a cookie, should you accept them and are they being scrapped?

THESE days, with every webpage comes an annoying message about cookies but the UK is now planning to get rid of “pointless” web cookie requests as part of its post-Brexit plans. We've put together a simple guide that explains everything you need to know about cookies – including whether you can decline them.

What is a cookie?

Cookies are delicious baked treats, but they're also a computer file that's becoming increasingly important to your life. The most basic version of a cookie is a very simple text file on your computer. When you visit a website that uses cookies, a cookie file is saved to your PC, Mac, phone or tablet. It stores the website's name, and also a unique ID that represents you as a user.

That way, if you go back to that website again, the website knows you've already been there before. This means companies can tailor their websites to you, because they know some information about you already.

What information can cookies hold?

We know that every cookie holds at least a website's name, and an ID for you. But some websites will also include other information in the cookie it stores on your computer. For instance, a cookie might contain any of the following:

  • The amount of time you spend on a website
  • The links you click while using the website
  • The options, preferences or settings you choose
  • Accounts you log into
  • Recording which pages you've visited in the past
  • Items in a shopping basket

For instance, a shopping website would use cookies to remember the items you're storing in a virtual basket before checkout. And a social network might use cookies to track the links you click, and then use that information to show you more relevant or interesting links in the future. Cookies are generally used to improve the experience for users. But there's been controversy from privacy advocates who would rather not have information about themselves being stored, particularly relating to their browsing habits.

Why did cookies become more prominent?

Cookie notifications became more regular when a piece of EU regulation called GDPR came into force. In short, it means companies need to get your explicit consent to collect your data. If a cookie can identify you via your device (which most cookies do), then companies need your consent. That's why you see lots of websites asking for your permission before dumping a cookie on your computer.

Do you have to accept cookies?

No, you don't. If a cookie can identify you, you can decline the cookie completely. Websites that use these cookies have to get your permission – or risk huge fines under various laws. So if you don't want to store a cookie holding information about you, just say no.

What happens if you don't accept a cookie?

The flip-side of this is that some companies simply won't let you use their website if you don't accept a cookie. Particularly after the introduction of GDPR (and the heavy fines that go with it), some websites will no longer give you access without cookie permission. It's generally because some websites simply won't work as intended without cookies. But for the most part, you'll still be able to access the majority of the internet without accepting cookies. There are upsides to accepting cookies, of course. You'll get a more tailored experience with more relevant content, so it's usually worth accepting cookies – unless you're particularly fearful about privacy.

How do I clear my cookies?

Because cookies are stored on your computer, you can delete them. Simply go into the settings of your internet browser and navigate to the history section, and there's usually a fairly obvious tool to delete cookies. This should wipe all of the cookies from your phone and computer, freeing up a small amount of file space. However, this will likely log you out of most websites, and make some web pages look a little different than they might usually.

Why is UK getting rid of web cookie requests?

The UK government will replace the EU’s data laws as part of its post-Brexit plans. Part of those plans involve getting ride of web cookie requests that it deems "pointless". Culture secretary Oliver Dowden told the Telegraph: "There’s an opportunity for us to set world-leading, gold standard data regulation which protects privacy, but does so in as light touch a way as possible." He referred to things like cookie requests as “pointless bureaucracy”.

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