The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) recently issued a warning that UK businesses operating websites must "wake up" to a new European Union law on cookies.

The new law, which comes into force on 25 May 2011, will require UK businesses to obtain consent from users of their websites in terms of storing information, or, accessing information that is already stored, on users computers. The new law will be subject to a limited number of exemptions, including where storage or access is strictly necessary to provide a service explicitly requested by the user of that website.

Businesses often use cookies. This may be to remember information so that users do not have to type in their details every time they buy products from that website, or, for the purposes of monitoring and analysing use of that website. We think that the use of "session" cookies for the latter example (ie for the purposes of monitoring and analysing use of the website) is where businesses may be most likely to fall foul of the new law (if user consent is not obtained) - as simply tracking users who are browsing a website is unlikely to fall within any of the exemptions to the new law.

On a practical level, businesses will need to be alive to the new law (including looking out for any related guidance issued by the ICO, or, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport - who are leading on the implementation of the new law) and also start thinking of ways in which they will obtain user consent in respect of cookies.

The ICO have acknowledged that the new law will cause uncertainty for businesses, and while businesses may take a small measure of comfort from the following statement set out in a recent ICO press release: "... we do not expect the ICO to take enforcement action in the short term against business and organisations as they work out how to address their use of cookies ...", we note that no definition of "short term" has been provided, and so businesses should be proactive in finding workable solutions so as to avoid falling foul of this new law.