June 11, 2009 | By Cindy Cohn

Cookies Crumbling: YouTube Takes a Small Step to Increase Privacy of Whitehouse.gov Visitors

After discussions with EFF, YouTube has implemented additional privacy protections for visitors to Whitehouse.gov viewing embedded videos hosted by YouTube.

When the Whitehouse.gov website launched in January, including embedded videos from YouTube, privacy advocates raised concerns that without extra privacy measures, YouTube would be improperly tracking visitors to the government website, including recording which videos were watched and combining that information with the ever-growing amount of information that Google and YouTube have about internet users, through YouTube’s use of cookies.

In response, The White House first made sure that YouTube's cookies were not served merely upon visiting the website, much like EFF does with MyTube. That was a good step.

Now YouTube says that they have taken a second step urged by EFF: essentially ignoring their account cookies for videos viewed on Whitehouse.gov. Ordinarily, YouTube maintains a record of every YouTube video you’ve ever viewed, associated with your YouTube account, through use of the YouTube cookie. Now, they’ve agreed to exempt videos embedded on Whitehouse.gov from this logging.

This is a good step and we commend YouTube and the Government for taking it. It shows that they recognize that tracking the government videos that Americans view is creepy and wrong. It also shows that Google/YouTube technologists can build and offer clever, useful privacy-protective modifications to their standard software.

Now we'd like to see them turn that cleverness to other places, not just the White House. Google/YouTube should offer this same "tracking-free" viewing to others. Human rights videos, politically sensitive videos, or even ordinary videos where viewers may want privacy should all be available without tracking. This is all the more important given the recent announcement that your YouTube viewing habits are being linked to your general Google dossier.

In addition, the government should adopt "tracking-free" videos across the board for all government websites. Viewers of videos from the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, your member of Congress and other governmental entities deserve the same privacy protection that viewers of the President's speeches. And since we're on the subject, we'd like a response to our January 27 and February 11 letters to the White House Counsel seeking the waiver that he provided to Whitehouse.gov to allow it to use cookies in the first place.

As we've said before, privacy concerns don't begin and end with the use of cookies. Along with CDT, we've proposed a better approach to privacy on government websites. Nevertheless, YouTube has taken a good step in the right direction with this change.


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