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January 28, 2009

Eric Peterson Rides Again

Looks a little like him, don't you think? Eric Peterson has an impassioned post on his blog in which he defends the Obama Administration’s decision to use persistent cookies for tracking behavior on the Whitehouse.gov site. He directs particular ire at an article by Chris Soghoian at CNET from November which questioned whether it was a smart move for the (then) Obama Transition Team to be using embedded YouTube videos for streaming Obama’s weekly addresses on the Change.gov site.

Eric’s post is a follow-up to his post from November in which he called upon Barack Obama to relax the burdensome rules around the use of persistent cookies on Government websites. And let me say this: those rules suck. They ban the use of persistent cookies altogether, both first- and third-party. And I stand firmly behind Eric’s stance that those rules should be re-written – Government can’t be effective in providing services online if it can’t track the usage of those services.

But in his enthusiasm, Eric does actually conflate two somewhat separate issues - cookies on the one hand, and third-party content & tracking on the other. And third-party tracking & content deserves at least as much attention as cookies (if not more, in fact).

Obama's team's decision to use YouTube to stream videos and WebTrends for web analytics means that behavior data is being sent to a third party. The Whitehouse.gov site does a pretty good job of explaining about its use of cookies, but a less good job of detailing what data is being sent to third parties, who those third parties are, and how to prevent that information being shared.

Whilst it's no skin off my nose to send this data to Webtrends and Google, this is partly because a) I know and trust those organizations, and b) the content on the Whitehouse.gov site is pretty uncontentious. But what if I were looking at detailed information about entitlement programs, or applying online for some Government help with my mortgage? There is at least a valid question to be asked about how this kind of behavior data is shared with third-parties, separate from the cookie discussion.

My view? I don’t really think Government websites should be sending tracking data to third-parties, or retrieving content from third-party sites (other than other Government sites). There are plenty of options for first-party analytics solutions which offer just as much functionality as hosted solutions and would allow the Government to maintain control of this data and to be able to be definitive about how it is stored and used.

Stop wasting their time!

Eric also makes the point that, with everything else that’s going on right now, it’s borderline irresponsible to be chewing up the new administration’s time with pedantic questions about cookies or third-party tracking. But I don't think it's inappropriate at this stage to flag this to the Obama administration, because I imagine that at this moment (or very shortly) a variety of Federal agencies are looking at how they can put more information and services online.

Helping the administration to set sensible policies now will stop precious money being wasted if policies have to be changed later. And besides, wasn’t it Eric who called on Obama’s team to take the time to review the rules in the first place? Could they not churn out some websites with some simple log-based tracking now and then focus on E-government policy when the economy’s calmed down?


Another issue addressed in Chris’s original post is the wisdom of using YouTube (or indeed any third-party streaming service) for the videos on the Change.gov site (YouTube is also used on Whitehouse.gov). This raises a number of questions, such as how was Google chosen over, say, Vimeo, or Hulu, or MSN Video, and whether there any SLAs in place to ensure this material is available on an ongoing basis.

Let me make it clear that I don't object to Obama's addresses being available on YouTube - they should be there, and on every other video streaming website. But for information published through the Whitehouse.gov website itself, I'm not sure that a third-party streaming site is the best choice. How confident can we be about the integrity of this information? After all, we wouldn't want Obama to be RickRolled, now would we?

Yeah, yeah, grumble, grumble… you done yet?

You’re probably thinking “Jeez, what a kill-joy” as you read this post. And it’s true that privacy wonks (which I would not fully consider myself to be) do have a rather Cassandra-ish quality, always looking for the bad. But this is an essential part of the dynamics of the debate on topics like this – which means that Eric’s robust post is also essential and welcome, I should add. But we did get into rather hot water with the previous administration’s disregard for privacy. So it only makes sense that the new guys should get to hear these concerns now.

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