Of all the ridiculous rules and regulations out there, compelling website owners to display a notice advising visitors that their site uses cookies, takes the biscuit!

Basically, almost all websites (and most advertising emails) use cookies or tracking pixels. So, unless you want to return to life without the internet, you don’t have a choice. Your browser is choc-a-block with cookies.

But as a South African website owner, you’re now going to have to add the ubiquitous “This website uses cookies” warning to your site in order to comply with the POPI Act.

The least irritating option for your website visitors is a simple banner with an “Accept” or “Got it” button that implies that by continuing to use the site, the user accept cookies. I don’t know who came up with the idea of adding a “Reject” button to the banner. What kind of moron would click that? If you want to avoid cookies, just leave the site of your own accord for goodness sake! Even worse are those annoying block out banners where you literally cannot enter the site without agreeing to the use of cookies – every time you visit the site.

What do these warnings achieve anyway? Even if users check the website’s Cookie Policy, the information is meaningless to most. It won’t help them block unwanted cookies or explain how to remove cookies. Nor does the Data Protection Act forbid the use of cookies, or regulate their use in any way. It only requires website owners to disclose what cookies they use and how they are used.

And ironically, the biggest cookie culprits – Google and Facebook – are not obliged to add the cookie warning to their websites, because the law doesn’t apply in the USA!

So while people who don’t know what a cookie is may be frightened into leaving your website with it’s alarming cookie warning, Google and Facebook look wonderfully ‘safe’.

Not all cookies are bad for you
When you visit a website, it might store cookies that recognise you, so that when you visit that website again, it will remember your login details or which products you bought previously. Other cookies are used for web analytics that help website owners evaluate their sites and improve them.

Some cookies (session cookies) are temporary and expire as soon as you close the browser. Others remain active even on websites that they didn’t originate from, gathering information about your behaviour and what you click on. These are called third-party persistent cookies, or tracking cookies. Tracking cookies are commonly used to deliver targeted advertisements to you as you browse the web. Others remember ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ on social media, and comments on blogs.

You don’t even need to click on an ad or social media sharing button for a tracking cookie’s information about you to be transmitted back to a server owned by the person or company who created it. As soon as you load the page, the cookie is sent to the server where it originated.

Tracking cookies can record all kinds of information about how you use the web: search queries, purchases, device information, location, when and where you saw previous advertisements, how many times you’ve seen an ad, and what links you click on. All of which begins to sound a bit alarming in terms of your privacy.

What do do about it
Almost all browsers offer options to delete cookies and block third-party tracking cookies. But if you delete or clear all cookies, you’ll also delete the useful ones that keep you logged into a website or remember your passwords. Blocking all cookies might also cause some websites to malfunction.

Most browsers offer an option to select “Do not Track”. Enabling this feature will send a request to the website you’re currently visiting to disable its cross-site user tracking and tracking cookies. But it’s important to note that this is just a request. There is no enforcement from any authority, or any consequence for websites that ignore the request and continue to use tracking cookies anyway.

If you’re concerned about cookies tracking your behaviour online, there are anti-tracking browser extensions you can install to stop unwanted cookies. An ad blocker can also help.