YouTube's New Cookie Policy Won't Track Whitehouse.gov Videos

In an apparent acknowledgment of the concerns expressed by privacy advocates, YouTube has changed its use of tracking cookies for videos embedded on the Whitehouse.gov Web site.

A spokesman for the company today confirmed a blog item on the Electronic Frontier Foundation Web site that said YouTube is no longer logging account cookies for videos viewed on Whitehouse.gov. According to the EFF item, YouTube is basically ignoring information from cookies on the White House site amid concerns the data would allow for improper tracking of visitors to the site.

Ordinarily, YouTube uses account cookies to keep a record of every YouTube video a user might have viewed on any site.

Asked about the EFF post, a YouTube spokesman today confirmed the change, which was implemented about a month ago. As a result, videos embedded on Whitehouse.gov are played from a separate YouTube domain where tracking cookies are not logged. "We host the 'impression' of the player on a separate domain, but we did not change the domain of the videos or the playback functionality," the spokesman said via e-mail.

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This is the second change YouTube has made to its policies on the use of cookies for videos embedded on Whitehouse.gov. Earlier this year, the company made a change that stopped YouTube tracking cookies from being served up when a visitor landed on a White House Web page containing an embedded YouTube video. As a result of that change, visitors to Whitehouse.gov have to actually click on a video for the cookies to be served.

Cindy Cohen, the legal director with the EFF wrote about the more recent change, said that YouTube will continue to use cookies for storing user preferences, but will ignore tracking cookies on Whitehouse.gov. In an interview, Cohen welcomed the change and said she hopes that YouTube will adopt a similar cookie use policy for videos embedded on other government sites.

"It shows that they recognize that tracking the government videos that Americans view is wrong," she said. While it's going to be hard to verify the extent to which YouTube has stopped logging cookies for Whitehouse.gov visitors, the company's moves are still a step in the right direction, she said.

Concerns about tracking cookie use on Whitehouse.gov first surfaced less than two weeks after President Barack Obama took office in January. The concerns were prompted by a White House decision permitting the use of persistent Internet cookies in YouTube video files on the then newly redesigned Whitehouse.gov Web site. The decision was a deviation from established policy relating to the use of third-party cookies on the White House site and sparked fears that it would leave site visitors open to being tracked and profiled without their knowledge. The growing use of embedded YouTube videos on other government sites also sparked broader concerns about visitors to those sites being snooped upon.

In response, the White House quickly tweaked its own policy and said that it would only allow cookies to be served when users actually clicked on embedded videos. A few weeks later, the White House said it was also experimenting with using generic flash video players for hosting videos on the White House site.

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