The right to consent: reforms of cookie pop-ups on the UK horizon

Last month, departing UK Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, spoke about seeking an overhaul of cookie consent pop-ups within the UK. The overhaul would allow users to set lasting privacy preferences within their devices, eliminating the need to interact with every cookie consent pop-up each time a webpage is visited.

The current regulations for cookies consent allows for wildly inconsistent settings. Depending on the webpage visited, cookie consent pop-ups can make it difficult to establish a user’s preference, with “Accept All” often being the easiest option to choose. This trick is called ‘nudging’ and unfairly manipulates users to consent to allowing all cookies to be collected from their web browsing experience.

What’s the big deal, though? The answer is found in the right to consent. Consent is considered valid by the UK GDPR when it is freely given, specific, and informed. When a website makes it difficult for a user to reject all cookies, or select which type of cookies can be collected, they are violating the right of the user to consent uninhibited. This is essentially a form of infringement upon user data privacy.

Many companies perceive cookies and other user tracking information as necessary to help businesses operate efficiently. They view this as a key aspect in the digital transformation of our economy. Without the utilisation of such data, companies argue that businesses would not be able to promote personalised ads for users who would, in theory, more likely have an interest in knowing about those products.

However, user data privacy and online business growth do not have to be mutually exclusive. We can and should be able to honour our rights to properly consent to cookies without hindering the operations of good business practices. The better we are at helping users give valid consent on what information is being collected from them, the more cohesion we can build between the business world and data privacy rights.

Incoming UK Information Commissioner, John Edwards, is well aware of the issues surrounding cookie consent pop-ups. He will enter his new role with a large task at hand, and without a clear path forward on how to achieve it. The proposed changes for cookie consent pop-ups may be technologically possible, but without the help from international governments and technology companies, the pursuit may not be achievable for the UK alone.


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