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The consumer view of online cookies: consent and control

Summary

  • Government has recently consulted on a range of options for changes to the way that cookies are used online, as part of their steps to redraw data protection legislation post-Brexit. Which? undertook new consumer research to understand how consumers felt about the proposed changes.

  • Contrary to the government’s proposals, we found that consumers would prefer to continue to be able to actively choose what cookies are used and what data is collected about them. 

  • Our findings challenge the consensus view that consumers dislike cookie banners. When consumers understand what the banner is asking, they find them a useful way of offering control and choice. The problem is not the concept or inconvenience of the banner, but rather the lack of standardisation in how cookies are explained and consent is sought. 

Introduction

In September 2021, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) launched a consultation, entitled ‘Data: A New Direction’.  It discussed the future of the data protection regime in the UK, and contained many suggestions for change that could have a direct impact on consumers. Which? carried out deliberative qualitative research with twenty-two consumers to gather their views on some of the options put forward. 

One set of changes proposed by the government were significant reforms to the use of ‘cookies’ - a technology used to track consumers online - including the option to extend the ways in which cookies can be used without the consumer’s consent, and changes to the ways that consumers are asked to consent to the use of cookies. This article describes how our research participants reacted to these proposals.

Consumers understand that cookies improve their online experience

Cookies support a wide range of online functionality, from remembering what a customer has added to their basket while shopping online, to helping online services understand how people are using their website, to building profiles to support targeted advertising. 

Currently, web services must seek consent for all cookies beyond those which are ‘strictly necessary’ to make the website work properly. The government proposed changing this to widen the range of cookies which can be used without the users’ explicit consent, with the aim of giving websites access to more information that could help them improve their services. 

While most of our participants were comfortable with the use of functional first party cookies (placed by the website currently being used), we found that many participants were uncomfortable with cookies being used for other purposes, including tracking by third parties (other than the website currently being used) for personalised marketing.

But control is essential

Our research participants were clear that they should be in control of their data, and asked for explicit consent for anything beyond functional cookies, mirroring the findings of our quantitative and qualitative research exploring consumers’ views on how online platforms collect data to target adverts. In particular, participants in this project bristled at the government’s suggestion that the requirement for consent should be removed for all cookie types, including third party tracking. 

The vast majority of participants were 'not comfortable ' with the idea of third party cookies collecting data without explicit consent.  Indeed, 15 of the 22 participants said they were ‘not at all comfortable’, indicating the strength of feeling on this subject.

Conclusion

What this deliberative research shows clearly is that giving the consumer the ability to consent and choose cookies is preferable to removing it. Consumers do not want their choice decided for them by redefining what is necessary data collection or through a change in consent mechanisms.  

Which? would like to see consent options developed with, and tested and evaluated by consumers to ensure that the solutions meet their diverse needs.

Want to learn more?

Click through to our full response to the consultation and a more detailed summary of our research findings

Contact us

If you have any questions, please email Katie Alpin at consumerinsight@which.co.uk

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