Just how counterproductive can government meddling be? Consider the case of the European Union’s (EU) directive mandating British sites ask users’ permission to use cookies.

Cookies are a form of communication between websites and web browsers (such as Internet Explorer or Firefox). Sites use cookies to track different sorts of text data, including a user’s log in information and browsing activity. Many sites require cookies in order to function.

The EU’s Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive passed in Brussels in late 2009; it went into effect in the UK on May 25 of this year. One of the objections then was that the directive would hurt British websites’ ability to compete with American sites, where there is no such rule regarding cookies.

Did the EU directive hurt British sites? The headline of this story says it all: Site visitor numbers plummet 90% after EU cookie law change.

That’s bad news for webmasters and companies. What about the perspective of web users? Cookies can be annoying, and because they can track what sites the user visits, there are privacy concerns.
However, as my friend Brian Garst notes, there are already plenty of successful market solutions to the cookies problem. Individuals can be diligent in choosing safe sites to visit and carefully monitor the privacy settings on their browsers. After visiting untrustworthy sites, and as regular maintenance, there are malware scanners that scan computers to eliminate harmful cookies and programs.

Citizens across the world already have the solution in their hands: don’t accept cookies. But nobody does that because cookies are useful, despite negative connotations. The EU directive implicitly encourages UK web users to reject cookies; as a result, UK citizens miss out on the full potential of information online. As is the case in many of our individual consumer decisions, the government should let us solve our own problems.

Hat tip Brian Garst.