Last May, the Information Commissioner gave industry much-needed breathing space by deferring for one year the deadline for compliance with the ‘Cookie Law’ - an EU e-privacy directive affecting all companies with an online presence. Time’s nearly up.

From 26 May, the Directive will be enforced in the UK and companies failing to obtain consent from their customers to attach cookies to their devices - which can include cookies used for Online Behavioural Advertising (OBA) - could face a fine of up to £500,000 as well as lasting damage to their brand’s image. No wonder Jon Woods, ISBA president and general manager of Coca-Cola, recently identified OBA as the “biggest regulatory issue facing advertisers”.

Cookies are used for a whole host of purposes some are used by third parties to analyse consumer browsing behaviour while others serve a less intrusive role in remembering payment details, for online shopping, for example. To remain compliant, companies will need to ensure they obtain the informed consent of their online visitors before they use cookies. How they do this will vary from company to company.

Some may adopt a range of solutions, including providing more transparent information, enhancing browser settings and displaying the new consumer icon. A tick box to ‘opt in’ to cookies may be an option, although certain consumers might not approve.

The browser solution would allow consumers to enhance their browser settings so they can ‘opt out’ of OBA. But while it is true that only around 2% to 3% of online consumers might choose to ‘opt out’ of OBA, there is concern that a similarly small proportion might ‘opt in’, denying advertisers the opportunity to track the majority of customers’ online behaviour.

Organisations need to give users a straightforward and wholly comprehensible explanation of precisely what cookies they use and why. Awareness is low even among web-savvy consumers. With the clock ticking, businesses will have to choose how they want to obtain consent - and fast.