The jobless, benefits, web cookies, and my old pal Iain Duncan Smith

I have spent much of 2012 writing and speaking about the EU Cookie Law, which, if nothing else, is a classic example of what happens when laws about the technology behind web sites are cooked up by cloistered bureaucrats who not only have no knowledge of web site technology, but who, by and large, pay their secretaries to use the web for them.

And just when I thought I could concentrate on Christmas cookies rather than third-party advertising cookies, they pull me back in.

Yesterday The Telegraph, as only the Telegraph can, reported that

Benefit claimants will have their online job applications remotely monitored by the Government to see whether they are making serious attempts to find work (link).

The article, which was written from a basis of such advanced technical knowledge that it puts “cookies” in quotes, hints that from next year, the jobless will be forced to look for and apply for jobs on a specific government web site which is yet to be created. This web site, whispers the article, could use cookies for surveillance purposes against the unemployed to see if they are spending more time on other sites than they are on the job site, or that perhaps they are not filling out all of the job applications that they should be filling out.

After spending the better part of two years telling us that cookies are “bad” and Evil Advertisers Are Out To Track You – and causing a hell of a lot of inconvenience for Britain’s businesses and organisations in the process – the article implies that this same government is now considering the deployment of the most intrusive and malicious cookies as a means of ensuring value to the taxpayer. I kid you not.

It is almost ridiculous that I would even need to set out the reasons why this idea cannot and will not work, but they include

  • The cookie law, for one;
  • The most basic tenets of individual privacy and human dignity, for two;
  • Logic: is the amount of time spent on one specific web site a measure of a jobseeker’s commitment to finding employment?
  • Multiple users of a single home computer: could you lose benefits because your partner was shopping online?
  • Cache clearing: I flush my cache a few times a week to keep my computer running smoothly and quickly. Would this count against a jobseeker?
  • Public computers, such as libraries and community centres: could another user’s site visits count against you?
  • Disability: people with disabilities rely on assistive technology to provide them with a quality of life. Would these people, who by definition spend more time on computers, be punished for reading the newspaper every morning online?
  • Cookie preferences and ad-blockers: every one of us has had the ability to block web cookies, entirely and selectively, since the 1990s. Would a jobseeker with high privacy settings be punished for failing to provide supplementary information about their viewing history?
  • Burden of proof: is the government prepared to make a defendable case that internet browsing history should be a deciding factor in the cessation of unemployment benefits? For a first time jobseeker? For a mid-career professional? For a disabled person? For an older jobseeker unfamiliar with the internet?

Four legs good, two legs baaaaaad

The only way the “surveillance” idea would work would be to dovetail the tracking functions with essential site functions – in other words, the web site would not be functional without the tracking function. Laws, after all, are made to be worked around. Did the EU and ICO honestly think this would not happen?

But, you say, I thought the law was about intrusive third party advertising and tracking cookies. It was never supposed to be about firewalling basic services behind tracking cookies, much less government sites.

Unfortunately there is a precedent for a government web site using the explicit lack of cookie opt-in to block access to its content and functions; in other words, if you did not accept their cookies you could not get past the home page. What site was that?

Who else – it was the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the very government bureaucracy which administers the cookie law. Over this past summer they botched the deployment of their own law on their own web site so that access to basic statutory legal information in textual format was conditional upon explicit and active cookie law opt-in. Was it a tech mistake? Was it a bug? Does it matter? And are any of those excuses even permissible, given that they were carrying out visual audits of reported violators at that very same time?

If you truly believe that the cookie law would not be worked around to be used against the people the Westminster government has chosen to scapegoat – or that the public sector would not set one rule for themselves and another rule for others – please read Animal Farm again over the Christmas break.

Where’s the business case, Iain?

Incredibly, this is not the first time I have come up against this issue. Years ago, before I went full-time with web design and consultancy, I worked as the communications and marketing manager at a local publicly funded community development agency. I did not last long. This was in the bad old days of New Labour largesse where process equalled progress, budget spend equalled results, PR equalled truth, and awards on the wall equalled quality. I spent most days in an ultimately fruitless battle against my colleagues’ insistence on spending outrageous amounts of taxpayer funds on vanity projects which would enhance their own careers but create no jobs for anyone else.

One battle I found myself fighting was a manager’s idea to create a jobs web site just for the tiny digitally excluded community we worked in. You could post jobs! You could view jobs! You could apply for jobs! he exclaimed, as if this was the most amazing idea since limes in Coronas. I stared open-mouthed, having gotten that job myself through the major Scottish jobs web site. Why, I asked, do we need to reinvent the wheel? Why don’t we just phone up the big Scottish jobs site and make a partnership arrangement with them? The technology is there, the infrastructure is there, we could have it up and running by the end of the week. Why do we have to commit five or six figures worth of funds on an IT project for a limited postcode remit where only 15% of the population have internet connectivity? Rather than being agreed with, I found myself being damned. My idea would not spend the budget or, more to the point, earn the manager credit for his fantastic idea.

I could have that very same conversation today about the project detailed in the Telegraph article. The worst thing is, I already have.

One of the few respites I had from that job was the frequent opportunity to get out of our toxic office and meet amazing people of all stripes and social classes in person. On one occasion, for professional balance, I had a mind-blowing and intelligent meeting with a genuinely interesting chap who, on that day, had more common sense and drive than the whole lot back at the office put together. His name was Iain Duncan Smith. Snowballs and Napoleons.

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