White House yanks 'YouTube' from privacy policy

For the third time in six days, the Obama administration modifies its site's privacy policy--this time expanding a cookie exemption to companies other than the video-sharing site.

Someone at the White House appears to be listening to those of us in the privacy community.

For the third time in just six days, the Obama administration has modified the White House Web site privacy policy in response to criticism from the blogosphere.

When the site launched on January 20, it exempted YouTube from federal anticookie tracking rules that would have otherwise cast a legal shadow over the use of embedded videos on the White House blog.

Reacting to criticism from the blogosphere, the White House first modified its Web site on Friday to limit the cookie exposure to only those users who clicked on videos. Then, on Sunday, the White House again tinkered with its privacy policy to scrub YouTube's name from the cookie exemption.

The original YouTube-specific exemption stated:

For videos that are visible on WhiteHouse.gov, a "persistent cookie" is set by third-party providers when you click to play the video.

This persistent cookie is used by YouTube to help maintain the integrity of video statistics. A waiver has been issued by the White House Counsel's office to allow for the use of this persistent cookie.

However, by Sunday evening, the exemption had been edited to remove all mention of YouTube:

For videos that are visible on WhiteHouse.gov, a "persistent cookie" is set by third-party providers when you click to play the video.

This persistent cookie is used by some third-party providers to help maintain the integrity of video statistics. A waiver has been issued by the White House Counsel's office to allow for the use of this persistent cookie.

The decision by the White House to revisit the cookie exemption does not come as a complete shock. The YouTube rule had in just a few short days generated both bad press and direct criticism from several public-interest groups.

It should be noted that this change is, for the most part, cosmetic. YouTube continues to be the only company whose video content is embedded within the White House Web site. Furthermore, the Google-owned video-sharing site is the only one that has received both official legal clearance from the White House Counsel and direct assistance by the White House tech staff (who embed the YouTube content) in planting tracking cookies within the Web browsers of millions of Americans.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who has advised President Obama and who personally donated $25,000 to the president's inauguration celebration (out of a total of $150,000 by six Google executives) must be rather pleased.

Still no transparency
In spite of Obama's much-publicized commitment to transparency , the White House has yet to actually provide a copy of the waiver (something this blogger has requested from White House officials informally, as well as via the Freedom of Information Act).

The text of the original privacy policy implied that a specific waiver had been issued for the cookies forced upon end users who intentionally viewed YouTube videos embedded within the White House Web site. The text now implies a far broader waiver for multiple video-sharing Web sites. However, it remains unclear if a new waiver has been issued, or if the old waiver was broad enough to cover multiple sites.

When I first wrote about the privacy policy text last week, I criticized the White House for providing YouTube with a specific exemption. At the time, I noted that no other company had received such special treatment.

The motivation of my criticism was to try to shame the White House staff into doing away with the exemption--as cookies are in no way required in order to serve online video. Instead of recognizing the need to protect consumer privacy, White House officials reacted by expanding the exemption to other companies.

In many ways, the current policy is actually worse than before: non-tech-savvy consumers now have no idea how many companies might be forcing their Web browser to accept tracking cookies. At least up until last week, visitors could take some comfort in the knowledge that only one company might be invading their privacy when they visited the White House Web site (and then only by a firm that had pledged to "do no evil"). Now, at least according to the White House's wide exemption, there could be many.

Last week, I said we should be reasonable and give the White House Web team a bit of time--after all, it is in a brand-new office, managing a new computer network, and scrambling to meet the demands of a very busy boss. However, if the team has had enough time to tinker with the privacy policy at least three times in the past six days, then it has more than enough time to post a copy of the waiver.

 

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