If you’ve spent any time online over the past few weeks, you will no doubt have noticed a steep up-tick in the number of communications from companies telling you how much they value your privacy, and asking you - very politely - to review the terms of your relationship with them.

The more sceptical among you may have thought it an odd coincidence that so many of the world’s e-commerce and digital marketing companies had suddenly become so concerned about the integrity of consumers’ data. Your instincts would have been spot on.

No, there hasn’t been a spontaneous global outbreak of soul searching among e-marketers. What’s at work is good old-fashioned self-interest.

You see, this past Friday, a law called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into effect across the EU. It gives consumers a much greater say on how, and if, their personal data is used. It requires companies to get clear consent from users before taking their data and to tell them exactly what it will be used for.

It also introduces some hefty fines for firms that flout the law: e20million (R292m), 4% of annual global turnover, or whichever is greater. That’s a penalty big enough to make even the likes of Facebook and Google sit up and take notice. Short of pulling all their business out of the EU, shedding millions of customers and losing billions in annual earnings, these titans of tech have to comply with GDPR.

Never mind that these measures are patently the right thing to do, and they should have done this years ago.

You are probably wondering why a law protecting the data of EU citizens is making an impact on your email inbox. These companies could have adopted one set of privacy rules for EU customers and another for those elsewhere. Facebook was said to be considering it.

As it turned out, the administration headache and PR nightmare of going this route persuaded the social media giant that universal compliance was the wisest policy.

Google, already embroiled in costly litigation with the EU, was quick to roll over and signal what a good global citizen it is. All other reputable players soon followed suit, sending GDPR rippling around the world.

So, what does the advent of GDPR mean for consumers in South Africa? No more marketing spam - at least not from any company that wants to comply with GDPR. These companies now need your explicit consent to send you communications. That’s why you’ve been receiving such a deluge of emails recently.

Thanks to GDPR, you will also now have a much better insight into the astonishing amount of data companies hold on you. How do you think those adverts follow you around the internet after just a single Google search? The new regulations mean you will be able to see exactly what data a GDPR-compliant business has on you and, as long as it’s a “reasonable request”, the company has to supply you with that information within 90 days.

Does this also mean an end to email spam and data abuse? Alas, no. There are plenty of fly-by-night operators who do not care about GDPR, and some local companies with no business in the EU will likely continue to pester you. But the internet giants that hold so much of the world’s data have received a long-overdue wake-up call. They’ve had to confront the reality that much of that data belongs to us, not them.

Follow Cooper on Twitter: @alanqcooper