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Why Obama should ditch YouTube

President-elect Barack Obama's use of YouTube to deliver his weekly address raises serious issues--due to the privacy-invading cookies that are sent to Google servers.

Chris Soghoian
Christopher Soghoian delves into the areas of security, privacy, technology policy and cyber-law. He is a student fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society , and is a PhD candidate at Indiana University's School of Informatics. His academic work and contact information can be found by visiting www.dubfire.net/chris/.
Chris Soghoian
7 min read

Update at 9:30 a.m. PST: Video audience figures have been updated.

President-elect Barack Obama has now posted his second weekly address to YouTube, and it has already gotten more than 411,000 views. A week ago, I criticized the use of YouTube by Obama's transition team, calling it a no-bid giveaway to the Google-owned video-sharing site.

The solution I called for then--the adoption of BitTorrent as the official distribution platform for Change.gov--was, admittedly, a pipe dream.

In this post, I'll explain why the government needs to step up and host its own videos and why it is simply improper to rely on YouTube to foot the bandwidth bill for Obama's messages to the people. I will also make the case that the use of YouTube and Google Analytics by the Obama transition team violates the privacy of Web site visitors and possibly even violates federal rules banning the use of permanent tracking cookies on government sites.

YouTube as the platform of choice
The announcement a couple weeks ago of Obama's decision to use YouTube for his weekly addresses led to headlines across the world. The president-elect's use of streaming video technology was hailed as revolutionary or, as one transition team rep gushed, "just one of many ways that he will communicate directly with the American people and make the White House and the political process more transparent."

Obama's team uploaded his first video address to YouTube (928,000+ views), AOL (220+ views), Yahoo (8,400+ views), and MSN (545+ views)--all figures as of Monday morning.

In keeping with the spirit of this posting, the above video is not embedded. YouTube

For his second weekly video, the Obama team seems to have ditched AOL and only uploaded the video to YouTube, Microsoft's MSN, and Yahoo. Web 2.0 start-ups such as Veoh, Vuze, Revver, and Blip.tv have not gotten any love.

While the transition team should be commended for uploading the video to multiple sites (albeit all owned by multibillion-dollar tech titans), the difference in the number of views is rather startling. Without access to accurate stats (which are not public), it is tough to know how many YouTube views came from people viewing the video embedded into the Change.gov site, searching YouTube, or watching a copy embedded into a personal blog or other news site.

However, I do think it is fairly reasonable to assume that a decent percentage of those nearly 1 million views came from people visiting Change.gov, the taxpayer-funded, official site of the Obama transition team. It is those hundreds of thousands of viewers who clicked the play button to load and stream a video embedded from YouTube's servers that are the focus of this post.

Privacy risks
YouTube, like many other sites, uses persistent cookies to track repeat visitors. Thus, when a regular YouTube user views a video embedded in a blog or other third-party site, the user's cookie is automatically sent to YouTube's servers--even without the user clicking the play button. Given the widespread use of embedded videos, this gives Google, which owns YouTube, an even better idea of the surfing habits of millions of people around the world.

And even if you believe Google's "do no evil" motto, it seems at least a little bit creepy for the company to track each time someone visits Change.gov--especially when that person doesn't actually press the play button to watch Obama's latest message to the people.

The privacy risks associated with the widespread use of embedded videos is something that has caused significant concern for privacy activists--enough for the folks at the Electronic Frontier Foundation to develop the privacy-preserving MyTube tool for Webmasters. If the Obama team insists on sticking with YouTube embeds, perhaps it will at least consider deploying MyTube to protect the privacy of citizens who visit the official transition site.

The privacy risks aren't just limited to YouTube.

Just a week ago, Dan Goodin at The Register criticized the use of the Google Analytics Web-tracking code in the Change.gov site--which also sets a permanent tracking cookie. Although he mostly focused on security risks, and not privacy-related threats, he blasted Obama's Web design team, stating that:

The failure of Obama's Webmasters to follow anything remotely like best practices is more than a little troubling because it suggests they don't fully grasp the security realities of living in a Web 2.0 world.

Eight years ago, the issue of cookies tracking users on government sites was a fairly big issue in tech policy circles, drawing the attention of those in Congress. Eventually, the Office of Management and Budget issued a directive that forbid the use of persistent cookies on federal agency sites.

The Obama team's use of both YouTube and Google Analytics raises serious privacy concerns and likely clashes with the OMB directive.

If Obama's transition team can afford to lease a jet for the president-elect and to pay for staff salaries, BlackBerrys, and hotel rooms, why can't it also pay for a few Web servers capable of serving up Flash video? Change.gov

To be clear, Change.gov is not creating or requesting its own persistent cookies. However, due to the embedding of YouTube videos and Google Analytics Web-tracking code in the site, visitors will be transmitting cookies to Google's servers. Since the YouTube cookies are not set directly by the Change.gov servers, it is unclear whether the Google cookies violate the specific OMB directive. Even if they do not, they clearly violate the intention of the rule--which was created in the days before embedded videos or third-party-hosted Javascript.

The official privacy policy listed at Change.gov makes no mention of cookies, nor of the collection of visitor information by Google's servers. The privacy policy does, however, pledge "not to make personal information available to anyone other than our employees, staff, and agents." At best, the Obama team copied a boilerplate privacy policy from somewhere else and overlooked the use of YouTube and Google Analytics. At worst, it seems pretty deceptive.

When reached for his thoughts, Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center told me:

On the upside, the transition people have done a good job with the ethics in government rules for transition team members. Now they need to revise the Change.Gov Web site and respect the rights of citizens who are seeking information about the new administration.

Lots of traffic
The low-quality video YouTube video embedded into the Change.gov blog is 7MB. When multiplied by more than 900,000 views, we find out that Obama's first video led to the consumption of over 6 terabytes of bandwidth. If the Obama team had to pay for the data, instead of getting it for free from YouTube, it would have cost nearly $1,000, at least if it used Amazon.com's S3 cloud-hosting service.

While YouTube did not serve any advertisements within or around Obama's chat, each of those 900,000+ viewers did see YouTube's name prominently placed within the Change.gov site (as a watermark in the bottom corner of the video). Once the three-minute video is over, viewers are given the ability to watch other related videos (which might have advertisements) or, with one click, to navigate directly to the Google-owned video-sharing site, which certainly has advertisements.

Furthermore, I'm sure that Google's PR team was absolutely overjoyed with the thousands of newspaper articles that flatteringly tied the president-elect to the video-sharing platform. While all press is good press, it is likely such Obama-related press is even better.

Defaults matter
The Obama team's uploading of its weekly videos to YouTube is fine--providing, as it currently does, that it also uploads the videos to a few other places too. As the videos are not copyrighted, members of the public are free to redistribute them via other platforms (as the LegalTorrents P2P site has done), and even mash them up. This is great, and I support this embrace of Internet distribution by the president-elect's team of geeks.

I do, however, have a problem with the use of YouTube-hosted embedded videos on the official Change.gov site.

The transition team has a budget of over $12 million. If it can afford to lease a jet for Obama and to pay for staff salaries, BlackBerrys, and hotel rooms, why can't it also pay for a few Web servers capable of serving up Flash video? Isn't it a bit tacky for the federal government to be relying on Google to host its videos?

It's as if the entire Obama transition team has adopted Hotmail's free e-mail service for its daily communications--with each e-mail sent by an Obama adviser followed by a signature pitching one of Microsoft's products: "See how Windows Mobile brings your life together--at home, work, or on the go."

Obama raised half a billion dollars through online donations during his campaign. His was the first presidential campaign to employ a chief technology officer (a computer geek formerly at the travel site Orbitz). These guys know what they're doing when it comes to technology; they design beautiful, interactive sites and have relied upon complex data-mining algorithms to profile and target individual voters and donors. If they wanted to, they'd have no problem installing a few dozen Adobe Systems Flash streaming servers. However, since YouTube will gladly foot the bill, the Obama team hasn't felt the need.

During his campaign for the presidency, Obama didn't call for a Web 2.0 government, but for a Google government--something that CEO Eric Schmidt, who is now serving as one of Obama's economic advisers, was probably very happy to hear. While I love conspiracy theories as much as the next guy, I don't really see one here. However, given the close connection between Obama and several higher-ups at Google, it is better to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Thus, it is time to bring an end to embedded YouTube videos on Change.gov. By all means, use streaming video to reach the masses, but let the bits flow from government-owned servers (preferably without privacy-invading cookies). If bloggers wish to embed YouTube videos of the speech on their own sites, that is fine. But Obama shouldn't.

Disclosure: I was a technology fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in spring 2008 where I worked on social-networking-related issues. I also worked for Google as a summer intern in 2006, received two Google fellowships, and currently use Google Analytics tracking tool for my personal site.