Browser popups aren't quite the scourge that they were 20 years ago, but nowadays, there's a new irritating popup in town. The one that asks you to accept all cookies. So what exactly are you agreeing to when you click that button?
It helps to first understand what a cookie actually does, other than provide empty calories. A cookie is a small piece of identifying information saved to your browser. Some are what we call first party cookies, which originate from the website you're actually on. These perform various tasks to help the website function. Such as saving your session once you log in, taking note of your location, so the site can tell what the weather is like outside, or retaining settings, such as keeping website's dark mode enabled.
Other cookies are third party cookies, which are the ones that cause considerably more controversy, as these are usually the ones involved in ad tracking. An advertiser that places an ad on a website will also put a cookie on your PC that follows you around on the web and tracks your activity, with the idea being to use that data to serve you relevant ads. So if you're a big hockey fan that likes to read about your favorite team, you might start seeing ads telling you to buy tickets when you're catching up on the news later that day.
Unsurprisingly, ad tracking makes plenty of people uncomfortable. So there have been laws passed in recent years that attempt to limit it. Most notably the ePrivacy Directive, often referred to as the EU Cookie Law. This cookie law makes it illegal for websites to place cookies on your device until you click on that agree button. And on the surface, this sounds like a pretty good way to protect users' privacy, right? Well, there are a couple of glaring issues with that law, including one you encounter daily.
One reason that the ePrivacy Directive is suboptimal, is that it's requirement for the website to give you a user-friendly option for managing your cookies is pretty weak. You see, user-friendly sounds like a good thing, but many websites interpret this clause fairly liberally, often to the extent of presenting you with a dark pattern. What we mean is that the accept all button is a very attention grabbing and very easy to click on button. While some websites are Good Guy Greg, and make the reject all button immediately accessible and equally prominent, many others force you to dig through a less obvious cookie settings menu, where a bunch of other options for disabling specific types of tracking cookies are present. With the option to reject all unnecessary cookies relatively hard to find, on a site where you just needed to spend three seconds looking up a fact, and this is going to take at least 20 seconds.
Unfortunately, the EU hasn't exactly been super vigilant about enforcing the cookie law. So useless user unfriendly warnings have become the order of the day. So are we just fated to deal with all of these cookie warnings forever? Not necessarily. There are actually browser extensions available, at least on desktop browsers, that can auto dismiss these cookie popups. Combine those with setting your browser to simply block all third party cookies on its own, and you have a pretty decent way to protect your privacy without having to navigate irritating menus on every website. For the notices that still slip through, though, it is best practice rejecting as many third party cookies as you can. Unless you really like getting targeted ads for embarrassing personal care products