Many believe that were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not be president. It seems only natural then that Obama would change the way the president of the United States governs by utilizing Web 2.0 technologies with the hope of increasing citizen participation in government. A two-week public comment period on such a proposal ended on Monday, August 10, 2009. Federal agencies’ websites have been banned from using web tracking technologies such as persistent cookies since June 2000. The Obama administration proposes to remove the ban, stating that in the past nine years “cookies have become a staple of most commercial websites with widespread public acceptance of their use.” They cite websites’ “shopping carts” as an example of widespread cookie use and acceptance.

The proposal included a possible three-tiered approach to the use of web tracking technologies on federal agency websites:

Single-session technologies, which track users over a single session and do not maintain tracking data over multiple sessions or visits;  

Multi-session technologies for use in analytics, which track users over multiple sessions purely to gather data to analyze web traffic statistics; and  

Multi-session technologies for use as persistent identifiers, which track users over multiple visits with the intent of remembering data, settings, or preferences unique to that visitor for purposes beyond what is needed for web analytics.  

Supporters believe these kinds of tracking technologies have transformed how people communicate over the internet, and Obama’s aides feel these technologies can make federal agency websites more user-friendly, which would make government more transparent and in turn increase public involvement. However, many privacy groups fear that this change in policy could “allow the mass collection of personal information of every user of a federal government website.”

Many groups question the administration’s motives. Two technology policy advocacy groups, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Electronic Frontier Foundation, cited the terms of a February 19th contract with Google, in which an unnamed federal agency explicitly carved out an exemption from the ban so that the agency could use Google’s YouTube video player.

EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg stated, “Our primary concern is that the General Services Administration has failed to protect the privacy rights of U.S. citizens and the expectation is they should be complying with the government regulations, not that the government should change its regulations to accommodate these companies.”

According to a senior government official, the current ban on cookies only applies to federal agencies and not third parties. Consequently, a visitor to http://www.whitehouse.gov, for example, isn't tracked by the government, but information about a user who clicks on a YouTube video on the website could be tracked by Google, according to a company source.

The administration stated that it is committed to protecting users’ privacy, “That is why when we asked for public comment on a new cookie policy, we specifically identified privacy considerations as a main area of focus.”

See http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2009/pdf/E9-17756.pdf for more information.