Websites will have to gain ‘explicit consent' from visitors to store or access information on their computers from 25th May.

A new European e-Privacy directive has been announced today and will affect any business tracking users via their cookies online. Exact details from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) are currently being drawn up and will not be available until the end of May, but enforcement and penalties are not expected in the short term as businesses are given a window to ‘address their use of cookies'.

The new law is an amendment to the EU's Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive and will require UK businesses and other organisations to obtain consent from visitors to their websites in order to store and retrieve usage information from users' computers.

Speaking today, the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham warned UK businesses and other organisations running websites that they must ‘wake up' to the EU legislation.

He said: “While the roll out of this new law will be a challenge, it will have positive benefits as it will give people more choice and control over what information businesses and other organisations can store on and access from consumers' own computers.

“We are proactively working with the government, businesses and the public sector to find a workable solution. We recognise that the internet as we know it today depends on the widespread use of cookies and there are of course legitimate business reasons for using them. So we are clear that these changes must not have a detrimental impact on consumers nor cause an unnecessary burden on UK businesses. One option being considered is to allow consent to the use of cookies to be given via browser settings.

“Once the new regulations are published there will be a major job of education and guidance to be undertaken. In the meantime, both the business community and public sector organisations need to start thinking clearly about how they will meet the requirements of the new directive.”

The Information Commissioner's Office will be responsible for regulation, while the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will lead on the implementation on the new measures in the UK.

Minister for culture, communications and the creative industries, Ed Vaizey, said: “Revisions to the e-Privacy directive will provide consumers with more choice and control over their internet experience. But at the same time we need to make sure these changes do not make using the internet more difficult.

“Businesses need to be working to address the way they use cookies. We recognise that work will not be complete by the implementation deadline. The government is clear that it will take time for meaningful solutions to be developed, evaluated and rolled out.”