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A £500,000 fine for misusing a cookie?

All website owners must comply with the new “cookies” law. If they do not, they risk a £500,000 fine.

Very broadly, cookies are small files which websites put on a visiting computer in order to track visits and store information. Website owners are now required to provide clear and comprehensive information about their use of cookies on their sites. Users are being asked to accept or reject the use of certain types of cookies by the site owner.

Similar rules also now apply to other tracking technologies, including any used in emails.

The new regulations have actually been around since May 2011. Enforcement is led by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) who granted website owners a one year grace period to comply. This expired on May 25 2012. Since then, it has been an offence to place a cookie on the hard drive of any PC (or other mobile device) without the visitor’s prior consent.

If your website uses “Google Analytics” or similar software to track visitors (as many do) it is still your responsibility to comply with the new law.

The ICO has been given extensive enforcement powers. It can require any organisation running a website to demonstrate that it is complying with the rules, and may impose a fine of up to £500,000 if the company fails to do so. We are promised that this power will only be used in the most serious of cases, where the contravention is deliberate, or where those responsible ought to know about it and fail to take reasonable steps to prevent it. Nevertheless, our advice must be not to take any chances. Other areas of compliance law indicate that small and medium-sized businesses will often present easy targets to use as deterrents.

We suggest you ask your website providers or IT consultants to confirm that your company’s website meets the regulatory requirements. You should keep a record of your request and the reply. This should stand company owners and directors in good stead in the event of any problems arising.

More information can be found on the ICO’s own website, at: www.ico.gov.uk

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