Quick Guide to UK GDPR, Marketing and Cookies

January 2024

How UK GDPR and PECR go hand-in-hand

Most have heard of GDPR. However, data protection law existed way before this new kid arrived on the block in 2018. And let’s not forget in the UK, GDPR has an equally important cousin called PECR.

The UK’s Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR) have been around since 2003 before the days of smartphones and apps. Organisations need to consider both UK GDPR and PECR when it comes to marketing and cookies.

Why marketers need to pay attention

There are more fines issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for falling foul of the PECR marketing rules than there are under UK GDPR. Under UK data reform plans, the amount the Regulator can fine under PECR could be set to increase substantially to a maximum of around £17 million. Currently the maximum fine under PECR is £500k. So it’s worth taking notice.

This is a quick overview, and we’d encourage you to check the ICO’s detailed marketing guidance and cookie guidance.

What’s the difference between UK GDPR and PECR?

In a nutshell…


✓ Tells us how we should handle personal data – information which could directly or indirectly identify someone.
✓ Sets out requirements organisations need to meet and their obligations.
✓ Provides us with seven core data protection principles which need to be considered whenever we handle personal data for any purpose, including marketing.
✓ Defines the legal standard for consent, which is relevant for direct marketing
✓ Gives people privacy rights, including an absolute right to object to direct marketing.

One of the principles is that processing of personal data must be lawful, fair and transparent. This includes making sure we have a lawful basis for our activities.


✓ Sets out specific rules for marketing to UK citizens, for example by emails , text messages or conducting telemarketing calls to UK citizens.
✓ Sets out specific rules when using cookies and similar technologies (such as scripts, tracking pixels and plugins).

PECR is derived from an EU directive, and EU countries have their own equivalent regulation which, whilst covering similar areas, may have different requirements, when marketing to their citizens.

We’ve written about the specific rules for email marketing and telemarketing here:
UK email marketing rules
UK telemarketing rules
The ‘soft opt-in’ – are you getting it right

How do UK GDPR and PECR work together?

Direct marketing

Marketers need to consider the core principles of UK GDPR when handling people’s personal information. Furthermore, they need to have a lawful basis for each data activity. Of the six lawful bases, two are appropriate for direct marketing activities; Consent and Legitimate Interests.

Consent: PECR tells us, for certain electronic marketing activity, we have to get people’s prior consent. UK GDPR tells us the standards we need to meet for this consent to be valid. Consent – Getting it right

Legitimate interests: If the types of marketing we conduct don’t require consent under PECR , we may choose to request consent anyway, or we could rely on legitimate interests. For example, marketing to business contacts rather than consumers.

Under GDPR, we need to be sure to balance our legitimate interests with the rights and interests of the people whose personal information we are using – i.e. the people we want to market to. ICO Legitimate Interests Guidance 

What about cookies?

PECR requires opt-in consent for most cookies or similar tech, regardless of whether they collect personal data or not. And we’re told this consent must meet the UK GDPR standards.

In simple terms, the rules are:

✓ Notify new users your website/app users about your use of cookies or similar technologies and provide adequate transparent information about what purposes they are used for.
✓ Consent is required for use of cookies, except a narrow exclusion for those which are ‘strictly necessary’ (also known as ‘essential’ cookies).
✓ Users need to be able to give or decline consent before the cookies are dropped on their device and should be given options to manage their consents at any time (e.g. opt-out after initially giving consent).

Changes are on the cards

The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill is currently progressing through Parliament. It’s not law yet, but if passed will usher in some changes to both UK GDPR and PECR.

The core data protection principles aren’t going away, nor are the lawful bases under UK GDPR, nor the rules for email marketing, text messages and telemarketing. However one proposal could see charities being able to take advantage of the soft opt-in for email/text marketing. What could the marketing ‘soft opt-in’ mean for charities?