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?

ObamaTube.com

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.

4 thoughts on “Eric Peterson Rides Again

  1. I wonder whether there would even have been videos if they hadn’t used Youtube – the advantage of Youtube is that it makes it easy to do some of this stuff, and it’s probably a massive (and slow) project to create a scalable video streaming infrastructure for a government department. I share your concerns about privacy and fair competition, but I’d probably rather they tried out new stuff than didn’t do anything.

  2. I am not sure why I have had so much passion for this topic. Had it not been for another project that is keeping me busy I think I would be in Washington by now.
    There is such an ironic theme that surrounds this issue now. The Government is asked by the same constituents that want to live in a cave to decrease government, strip costs, improve efficiencies, etc. However, is against the tools used to manage these changes in several cases. Cookies, polling, cameras in public places, etc.
    As we all know who are probably reading this, cookies allow us to figure out if content is worthwhile. Cookies allow us to see if we can strip that latent content to put resources to newer stuff people care about. Cookies allow us to do A/B testing to see what works instead of spending countless hours in congressional hearings about the new video tool. However if I just woke up and read about cookies when explained by the media, even some WA pros I have heard, I would be scared about cookies too.
    WA PRO: “We use cookies to improve the website” … Privacy Guy: “How?” … WA Pro: “By tracking the pages each user visits” … Privacy Guy: “You track all my pages” … Doesn’t really matter at that point what is said. The message has been said.
    I say enough silliness … let’s show them the money.
    Why not make the reports available. I am not sure if the WebtTrends team discussed their new “Open” message with the “Open and Transparent Data” Obama team but by opening the WebTrends data up to others it might help to minimize this conversation once and for all. If the aggregated census data (which was collected by asking each and every individual in the country PII) is made public, why can’t their Visits per Visitor?
    FYI: I sent an email to the WhiteHouse.gov team, I posted it at bosilytics.wordpress.com. No response as of yet.
    -Thomas Bosilevac

  3. Sean,
    I agree with you that it’s good that the Obama team are trying these new things out. I’m certainly prepared to cut them some slack in the name of moving forward quickly with a new style of government, but I think that this is right time for them to be thinking about the longer-term implications of this as they formulate their video streaming strategy. Knowing how smart they all are, I’m sure they’re doing this.
    Cheers,
    Ian

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