Cookie consent still a compliance trash-fire in latest watchdog peek

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The latest confirmation of the online tracking industry’s continued flouting of EU privacy laws which — at least on paper — are supposed to protect citizens from consent-less digital surveillance comes by via Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC).

The watchdog did a sweep survey of around 40 popular websites last year — covering sectors including media and publishing; retail; restaurants and food ordering services; insurance; sport and leisure; and the public sector — and in a new report, published yesterday, it found almost all failing on a number of cookie and tracking compliance issues, with breaches ranging from minor to serious.

Twenty were graded ‘amber’ by the regulator, which signals a good response and approach to compliance but with at least one serious concern identified; twelve were graded ‘red’, based on very poor quality responses and a plethora of bad practices around cookie banners, setting multiple cookies without consent, badly designed cookies policies or privacy policies, and a lack of clarity about whether they understood the purposes of the ePrivacy legislation; while a further three got a borderline ‘amber to red’ grade.

Just two of the 38 controllers got a ‘green’ rating (substantially compliance with any concerns straightforward and easily remedied); and one more got a borderline ‘green to amber’ grade.

EU law means that if a data controller is relying on consent as the legal basis for tracking a user the consent must be specific, informed and freely given. Additional court rulings last year have further finessed guidance around online tracking — clarifying pre-checked consent boxes aren’t valid, for example.

Yet the DPC still found examples of cookie banners that offer no actual choice at all. Such as those which serve a dummy banner with a cookie notice that users can only meaningless click ‘Got it!’. (‘Gotcha data’ more like.. )

In fact the watchdog writes that it found ‘implied’ consent being relied upon by around two-thirds of the controllers, based on the wording of their cookie banners (e.g. notices such as: “by continuing to browse this site you consent to the use of cookies”) — despite this no longer meeting the required legal standard.

“Some appeared to be drawing on older, but no longer extant, guidance published by the DPC that indicated consent could be obtained ‘by implication’, where such informational notices were put in place,” it writes, noting that current guidance on its website “does not make any reference to implied consent, but it also focuses more on user controls for cookies rather than on controller obligations”.

Another finding was that all but one website set cookies immediately on landing — with “many” of these found to have no legal justification for not asking first, as the DPC determined they fall outside available consent exemptions in the relevant regulations.

It also identified widespread abuse of the concept of ‘strictly necessary’ where the use of trackers are concerned. “Many controllers categorised the cookies deployed on their websites as having a ‘necessary’ or ‘strictly necessary’ function, where the stated function of the cookie appeared to meet neither of the two consent exemption criteria set down in the ePrivacy Regulations/ePrivacy Directive,” it writes in the report. “These included cookies used to establish chatbot sessions that were set prior to any request by the user to initiate a chatbot function. In some cases, it was noted that the chatbot function on the websites concerned did not work at all.

“It was clear that some controllers may either misunderstand the ‘strictly necessary’ criteria, or that their definitions of what is strictly necessary are rather more expansive than the definitions provided in Regulation 5(5),” it adds.

Another problem the report highlights is a lack of tools for users to vary or withdraw their consent choices, despite some of the reviewed sites using so called ‘consent management platforms’ (CMPs) sold by third-party vendors.

This chimes with a recent independent study of CPMs — which earlier this year found illegal practices to be widespread, with “dark patterns and implied consent… ubiquitous”, as the researchers put it.

“Badly designed — or potentially even deliberately deceptive — cookie banners and consent-management tools were also a feature on some sites,” the DPC writes in its report, detailing some examples of Quantcast’s CPM which had been implemented in such a way as to make the interface “confusing and potentially deceptive” (such as unlabelled toggles and a ‘reject all’ button that had no effect).

Pre-checked boxes/sliders were also found to be common, with the DPC finding ten of the 38 controllers used them — despite ‘consent’ collected like that not actually being valid consent.

“In the case of most of the controllers, consent was also ‘bundled’ — in other words, it was not possible for users to control consent to the different purposes for which cookies were being used,” the DPC also writes. “This is not permitted, as has been clarified in the Planet49 judgment. Consent does not need to be given for each cookie, but rather for each purpose. Where a cookie has more than one purpose requiring consent, it must be obtained for all of those purposes separately.”

In another finding, the regulator came across instances of websites that had embedded tracking technologies, such as Facebook pixels, yet their operators did not list these in responses to the survey, listing only http browser cookies instead. The DPC suggests this indicates some controllers aren’t even aware of trackers baked into their own sites.

“It was not clear, therefore, whether some controllers were aware of some of the tracking elements deployed on their websites — this was particularly the case where small controllers had outsourced their website management and development to a third-part,” it writes.

The worst sector of its targeted sweep — in terms of “poor practices and, in particular, poor understanding of the ePrivacy Regulations and their purpose” — was the restaurants and food-ordering sector, per the report. (Though the finding is clearly based on a small sampling across multiple sectors.)

Despite encountering near blanket failure to actually comply with the law, the DPC, which also happens to be the lead regulator for much of big tech in Europe, has responded by issuing, er, further guidance.

This includes specifics such as pre-checked consent boxes must be removed; cookie banners can’t be designed to ‘nudge’ users to accept and a reject option must have equal prominence; and no non-necessary cookies be set on landing. It also stipulates there must always be a way for users to withdraw consent — and doing so should be as easy as consenting.

All stuff that’s been clear and increasingly so at least since the GDPR came into application in May 2018. Nonetheless the regulator is giving the website operators in question a further six months’ grace to get their houses in order — after which it has raised the prospect of actually enforcing the EU’s ePrivacy Directive and the General Data Protection Regulation.

“Where controllers fail to voluntarily make changes to their user interfaces and/or their processing, the DPC has enforcement options available under both the ePrivacy Regulations and the GDPR and will, where necessary, examine the most appropriate enforcement options in order to bring controllers into compliance with the law,” it warns.

The report is just the latest shot across the bows of the online tracking industry in Europe.

The UK’s Information Commission’s Office (ICO) has been issuing sternly worded blog posts for months. Its own report last summer found illegal profiling of Internet users by the programmatic ad industry to be rampant — also giving the industry six months to reform.

However the ICO still hasn’t done anything about the adtech industry’s legal blackhole — leading to privacy experts to denouncing the lack of any “substantive action to end the largest data breach ever recorded in the UK”, as one put it at the start of this year.

Ireland’s DPC, meanwhile, has yet to put the decision trigger on multiple cross-border investigations into the data-mining business practices of tech giants including Facebook and Google, following scores of GDPR complaints — including several targeting their legal base to process people’s data.

A two-year review of the pan-EU regulation, set for May 2020, provides one hard deadline that might concentrate minds.

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