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White House camouflages ties to Google

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Tue, Jan 27, 2009 at 12:57 pm

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The White House webmaster apparently is apparently hearing concerns from privacy advocates about exemptions from federal rules for Google’s YouTube video service, but  I’m not applauding the latest response at all.

In fact it disguises what’s happening, and down plays the relationship between Google and the White House, when what’s needed is complete separation of Google and state.

Here’s the deal: Federal regulations prohibit the use of "persistent cookies" on government websites. Cookies are small bits of code sent to a browser that allow the user to be tracked.  When the White House website launched after President Obama’s inauguration, it featured Google’s YouTube videos embedded in the site.

As noted by blogger Chris Soghoian, the website’s privacy policy first said that YouTube had been granted a waiver from the federal regulations and that a persistent cookie from Google would be set when a user clicked on a video.

Trouble was, that wasn’t what was happening. Cookies from Google were set when a user merely visited a page with an embedded "YouTube" video.

About  12 hours after Soghian’s initial post, the White House site was tweaked so that the reality matched the stated privacy policy: Google cookies were set only when the embedded video was clicked and a link was provided that enabled a user to download the video without getting a cookie.  I said I thought it was a step in the right direction.

But guess what’s happened.  As reported today by Soghian, the old White House Website privacy policy specifically referred to YouTube. It said:

"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."

You at least knew explicitly who was setting the cookie. Now the privacy policy has been scrubbed clean of any mention of Google’s YouTube and reads:

"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."

This anything but a move toward greater transparency.  If you’re going to grant exemptions to regulations, say who’s getting them.  And it’s not at all necessary to use YouTube to display video on a website.

Google’s YouTube is the biggest and most popular of the online video services.  That’s probably why The White House has created a channel on the service where it is posting official White House videos shot with taxpayer money.

But YouTube is hardly the only such service.  The White House needs to make its videos equally available to all such services.  Even worse is when the White House webmaster camouflages Google’s favored status.

We all must insist upon separation of Google and state.

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This post was written by:

John M. Simpson

- who has written 363 posts on Inside Google.

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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