White House Web site moves to generic video player; privacy advocates applaud

They had questioned whether site visitors could be tracked through user cookies

A White House decision to use a generic flash video player for hosting President Barack Obama's latest weekly video address on WhiteHouse.gov is being seen by some as a sign that the executive office is responding to previous concerns about the use of embedded YouTube videos on the site.

The White House has denied that its use of a generic player signals any change in policy on using videos from YouTube and other third parties on WhiteHouse.gov. In comments to the New York Times yesterday, White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said the move is simply an experiment to test "a new way of presenting the president's weekly address by using a player developed in-house." Shapiro said the decision was more about dealing with internal capabilities than taking a position on third-party products.

Even so, some privacy advocates are hoping that the change was prompted by concerns about the use of persistent Internet cookies in YouTube videos embedded on the redesigned WhiteHouse.gov Web site. Critics had claimed that allowing third-party cookies to be placed on the site was a deviation from established executive-branch policy and one that would leave site visitors open to being tracked and profiled without their knowledge.

The site was redesigned when Obama took office Jan. 20.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a privacy rights group, in January sent a letter to White House Counsel Gregory Craig about the issue (download PDF). Yesterday, it expressed hope that the latest change shows that the White House is listening to the concerns.

Referring to Shapiro's comments in the New York Times, EFF digital rights activist Hugh D'Andrade in a blog post expressed hope that the testing of the new video player is a "harbinger of things to come. It would mean that the Obama website team has the will and the agility to hear concerns from the public, and to act quickly to find remedies that work in the public's interest."

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), a privacy rights advocacy group in Washington, said last weekend's switch to a generic video player could be a sign that the White House is trying to address privacy concerns. "I think they are trying to feel their way here," Chester said.

After having run a hugely successful election campaign that leveraged Web 2.0 technologies, the Obama administration would like to use the same types of tools to advance its agenda in office, he said. "They've had to make an abrupt change from running perhaps the most sophisticated digital media campaign ever to a largely Web 1.0 government world," he said.

Cindy Cohn, the Washington-based EFF's legal director, said she is "very pleased" to see the White House use an in-house video player. "I think it is the right thing for them to use until YouTube or whoever it is that does video [on WhiteHouse.gov] can guarantee true nontracking" of site visitors.

Cohn stressed that the EFF has no objection to the White House using videos from YouTube or from any other third party on its site -- as long as the issue of tracking cookies is resolved. "I'm vendor-neutral," Cohn said. "I don't care what vendor it is. It's not about the demonization of any vendor. The only point is if they are tracking visitors or not. That has to change."

Cohn previously had noted that visitors to federal Web sites should be able to view official information without fear of being tracked either by the government or by third parties such as YouTube, which is owned by Google Inc. That expectation is consistent with the government's own stance on the use of cookies, she noted, pointing to a June 2000 memorandum by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

That memo discussed the "particular privacy concerns" raised by the use of tracking cookies on government sites and concluded that cookies shouldn't be used "because of the unique laws and traditions about government access to citizens' personal information."

The Obama White House had issued a waiver concerning the use of cookies on the WhiteHouse.gov site. The waiver, now part of the site's modified privacy policy, allows the use of persistent cookies by "some third-party providers to help maintain the integrity of video statistics." That waiver remains in place.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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