Vaizey: UK will not meet EU cookie law deadline

The UK government says it doesn't expect websites to meet the deadline for a forthcoming EU law that requires them to obtain a user's explicit consent before they install cookies - but says no action will be taken against them.

Cookies are small text files that are downloaded onto a user's PC, enabling websites to keep track of individual users as they navigate a web site.

Cookies also enable sites to recognise returning users, enabling them to 'enhance' the user experience, or - in lay person's terms - allowing them to present you with stuff they think you'll be interested in, in the hope that they'll be able to flog some of it to you.

While users already have the option of refusing to let cookies be downloaded onto their machines, many websites, including social networking sites such as Facebook, will not work correctly without cookies being enabled. Some advertisers have even put cookies to still more controversial use, tracking users' browsing behaviour even after they have left their web site.

Most web browsers allow cookies by default - and the majority of users are blissfully unaware that their activities are being tracked, as web sites are currently under no legal obligation to inform them that they are about to download them.

The new law, which requires users to ask permission before downloading cookies, must be implemented by 25th May.

In a statement, the Department for Media, Culture and Sport confirmed that it would be adopting a two-step approach to implementing the European law:

"A one size fits all solution is not appropriate to the UK," said the statement. "Flexibility is essential for innovation and new business models."

Communications minister Ed Vaizey last week told the Daily Telegraph that the government is working with browser software vendors to ensure that users can give permission without interrupting their enjoyment of the Internet.

Vaizey said that technical measures to implement the law would not be in place by the 25th May deadline - but said he did not expect the UK's privacy regulator, the Information Commissioner's Office, to take immediate action against sites that infringed the new rules.

One possibility is that the government will make websites notify users about tracking cookies via on-screen icons, which users can click to enable cookies. Other experts speculate that the most likely solution will be an explicit 'opt out' system.