Prepare for pop-ups.
Starting on May 25, the way websites track and monitor users will change forever. A new directive will go into effect in the European Union, requiring "explicit consent" from users before tracking them with cookies. The directive also required the IAB (a web ad industry mouthpiece) to put up a website explaining behavioral advertising to web users.
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The IAB defines a cookie as "a small file of letters and numbers downloaded on to your computer when you access certain websites". In practice, cookies are a little like bumper stickers. They identify your interests and likes to any site that bothers to look. If you spend a lot of time reading about the new iPad, you'll start to notice ads for iPad peripherals and apps in the course of your browsing experience.
But now sites serving EU customers will need to find a way to get consent before tacking those cookies onto a browser's digital signature. Online shopping will be unaffected by this move, as cookies based around purchases are excluded from the directive.
So how will this decision effect you? If you live in the EU expect a ton of pop-ups and other prompts upon entering your favorite sites, asking you to enable cookies. A "hidden", browser-based toggle to accept or reject all cookies will not be enough to satisfy the directive.
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It remains to be seen if similar measures will be adopted in the United States. Advertisers will fight tooth and nail to keep it from happening. The directive has already caused its fair share of controversy. Some feel it will do more to harm European start-ups than it will to protect privacy. US-based websites will not be required to comply with the directive, giving them an advantage over their European counterparts.