White House Confronts Cookies

The White House may lift its policy barring federal Web sites from tracking users' online behavior. A <a href="http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2009/E9-17756.htm">Federal Register notice</a> published on Monday seeks public comment on revisions to an existing ban on persistent cookies -- common software programs that commercial sites deposit on a visitor's computer to collect usage information.

The White House may lift its policy barring federal Web sites from tracking users' online behavior. A Federal Register notice published on Monday seeks public comment on revisions to an existing ban on persistent cookies -- common software programs that commercial sites deposit on a visitor's computer to collect usage information.

The 2000 cookie policy issued by the Office of Management and Budget was intended to protect citizen privacy but has sparked criticism -- even from White House officials -- for hampering citizen outreach.

"The goal of this review is for the federal government to continue to protect the privacy of people who visit federal government Web sites while at the same time making these Web sites more user-friendly, providing better customer service, and allowing for enhanced Web analytics," the notice states.

The administration is contemplating three levels of tracking. One would only track users over a single visit, not return visits. The second method would follow users over multiple sessions just to analyze Web traffic. The third approach would trace user behavior over multiple sessions to remember users' settings and unique preferences for "purposes beyond what is needed for Web analytics."

In a May interview with Government Executive, Bev Godwin, the director of online resources and interagency development at the White House's new media office, said the policy on persistent cookies has hampered efforts to engage the public online.

On Friday, she blogged on the White House Web site, "We want to use cookies for good, not evil" - and invited the public to comment on cookies through various online channels, including the Office of Science and Technology Policy blog.

People can comment on the Federal Register notice via the Open Government Initiative blog, too.

Feedback is due by Aug. 10.

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