Privacy groups and small Web companies are raising concerns about the company's ubiquity on government sites
Executives at online-advertising giant Google are helping President Obama and Capitol Hill legislators get their messages out to the public, but they're facing nascent opposition from privacy advocates and small competitors who say Google is inappropriately using its presence on government Web sites to track users' political activities online.
These critics say that Google, aided by the White House, is using "cookie" software and the popular goal of government transparency to boost its own revenues and to build a vast database of citizens' political attitudes.
Google's expanding role in government is illustrated by the deals that Google struck with the Democratic-controlled Congress and with President Obama's White House. Both allow Google's data-collecting cookies -- compact files automatically downloaded onto Web-surfers' computers when they visit a site -- to be placed on citizens' computers when they view politicians' video speeches, or even when they merely view the pages where the speeches can be watched.
In a short statement to National Journal, a White House spokesman said "we aren't using [Internet] data for political purposes, nor do we have any plans to."
The current system "allows one company to collect huge amounts of data.... The idea that the government would be endorsing any corporation having access to citizens' political concerns... is a concern," said Jeff Chester, founder of the D.C.-based Center for Digital Democracy. The data collected from government Web sites, he said, "can then feed into the very sophisticated political campaign-ads products that Google is peddling to legislators all across the country."
Even without any role for Google, the government's use of data-collecting cookie software on its Web sites and those of its affiliates is questionable, said David Sohn, a privacy-advocate at the left-leaning Center for Democracy & Technology. "It's something we're going to be looking at... there will be, and there should be, scrutiny."
From their first day in office, White House officials used Google's YouTube software to display videos of Obama's speeches on WhiteHouse.gov. Because of this choice, some pages on the site inserted Google's cookies onto visitors' computers, even if the visitor did not watch the YouTube videos.
After a spurt of protests from privacy advocates, White House officials and Google officials modified the system so that YouTube cookies were inserted only if visitors watched the videos, said Christopher Soghoian, a computer expert at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, who discovered the YouTube cookies on the White House Web site.
Next, the White House began using commercial software made by Akamai to display the videos. But this service is expensive, and it too inserted cookies into each browser that displayed the Web page, even when the visitor did not watch the video. By March 10, White House officials stopped the transfer of those cookies and restarted use of YouTube software -- and YouTube cookies -- after National Journal asked for details about the White House's policies.
The cookies on these sites are intended only for basic tasks, Google officials say, and do not collect the extensive information recorded by company's advertising cookies. "It is not the same cookie that we would set on [advertising-supported YouTube] channels," company spokesman Scott Rubin said. The basic cookie counts visitors, keeps the volume steady and "tells us what other videos you've seen," he said.
But the Google privacy notices on the White House videos is more open-ended, and it's hard to tell exactly how the information is being used. "Google is keeping this cookie information, we know that," said Soghoian. "What Google is doing with it is a secret."
One clue came in March, when the White House's YouTube videos began displaying a small warning to prospective viewers. The warnings linked to a Google Web site which says, "We may record information about your usage, such as when you use YouTube, the channels, groups and favorites you subscribe to, the contacts you communicate with, the videos you watch and the frequency and size of data transfers, as well as information you display or click on... [and] track which e-mails are opened by recipients."
To verify the transfer of cookies, National Journal used a Firefox browser and two additional software tools, dubbed Firebug and Firecookie, as well as a Web site operated by Adobe Systems Inc. In several tests on March 16, the Firecookie software showed how the YouTube software downloaded a cookie onto National Journal's computer when it was used to view a video speech by Obama displayed at WhiteHouse.gov and at MyBarackObama.com, which houses the reconstituted Obama election campaign organization. Different cookies were inserted when National Journal watched videos from other agencies.
Other YouTube cookies were downloaded when the browser was used to visit the "Senate Hub" and the "House Hub" sites established by YouTube for members of Congress. The cookie-detecting software also showed that the congressional pages carried additional data files that can be used by tracking and analytical software owned by Google's subsidiary DoubleClick.
Still, the rules allow agency sites to use "session cookies," which are deleted when a visitor leaves, and basic traffic-measuring software. Agency sites appear to be following those rules.
But the Executive Office of the President is not an agency and is exempt from the 2002 law. The White House's online privacy statement says the cookies are "used by some third-party providers to help maintain the integrity of video statistics. A waiver has been issued by the White House Counsel's office to allow for the use of this persistent cookie." (Persistent cookies, unlike session cookies, remain on users' computers after they leave and can track their visits to other sites.)
A White House statement on Monday said that "the only persistent cookie that the White House allows is a cookie to ensure that users don't artificially drive up view count," but the White House acknowledged on another occasion that YouTube cookies could appear on .gov sites. The statement also said the White House officials "don't provide Google access to any personal information about our users." But the data in Google's YouTube cookies can be combined with other databases, such as the database that stores the personal data provided by YouTube account holders. This data-compilation could allow Google to learn much about the people who watch Obama's speech at the White House site or at My.BarackObama.com.
According to the White House's online privacy declaration, software on agency Web sites records "IP addresses, which are the locations of computers or networks on the Internet, and analyze them in order to improve the value of our site." The electronic address of each surfer's computer, the IP addresses, are "only looked at to note the geographies of our users and view count," said the statement.
Congress operates under a different set of rules than the White House, but the use by House members of YouTube's "House Hub" does not violate the gift-ban because the free service is "offered on an equal basis to others," said Kyle Anderson, the press director at the Committee on House Administration.
Yet the site is not offered on the same basis, because Google has promised not to sell advertisements on the House and Senate sites. That's led small vendors to complain that they've lost sales to Google's free advertising-supported services. The companies try to sign traditional fee-for-service contracts with individual legislators, but they're business was undercut by Google's provision of the free House and Senate hubs to the legislators.
Drawing the Line
In general, federal laws bar the use of government assets for political campaigning. But the much-lawyered distinctions between government services and political campaigning are being blurred as politicians use Internet technology to extend their advocacy.
During the 2008 campaign, the White House collected the e-mail addresses and allied data about the concerns of roughly 13 million supporters and raised more than $500 million online, including tens of millions from donors whose identity the campaign was not required to announce. This data is valuable in part because it will help Obama's re-election campaign quickly raise donations and mobilize volunteers. On March 16, administration officials announced plans to mobilize its supporters, via the Organizing for America site, to help pass Obama's proposed $3.55 trillion budget for 2010.
White House officials declined to be interviewed on the rules governing the separation of campaign and state data.
"There are indications that the administration wants to revise some of these laws, particularly with respect to the Internet, and we're waiting to see if we can play a role," said Peter Greenberger, a former regional campaign manager for Al Gore's presidential bid who now heads Google's Elections and Issues Advocacy team. "The real question that people are trying to answer is what can the White House do now that they're the White House as opposed to a [political] campaign."
Finding that line will mean answering questions about rules that bar the use of government assets for political campaigning, contracting rules that limit the ability of officials to hire one company rather than another and laws that bar government officials from favoring contractors, said Google officials. Also, added Greenberger, "There would be issues providing some services to an elected official that is not provided to somebody else," such as a political opponent. But, he added, "in some cases, you know, incumbency is a powerful thing."
Over the last year, Google has expanded its sale force in D.C., in two business areas, said Greenberger. For example, Google is selling advertising services to legislators and advocacy groups on both sides of the political divide, who value Google's ability to displays ads to people who are likely to vote for a candidate, to donate, sign a petition or volunteer for a cause.
Google is also working with federal officials to map out government data so that Google's most valuable property, the Google search page, can better direct citizens to sought-after government information. Any increased traffic through the Google Web page to federal sites gives the company a greater opportunity to sell advertising to government and commercial customers, said Greenberger. "It would be great if HUD's site had a little ad saying, 'Are you eligible for the mortgage bailout? Fill out this ad,'" Greenberger said in February, using the Department of Housing and Urban Development as an example.
The administration's green light for the use of YouTube cookies is mirrored by a push among federal technology managers. In a Dec. 21 report, for example, a panel of four tech managers urged that federal rules be changed to allow officials to "reach new audiences and engage the public." Because "agencies are banned from using persistent cookies without approval from their agency head... we can't take advantage of sophisticated Web services and analytical tools that rely on persistent cookies," the report said. To fix this shortcoming, the report recommended that the administration's as-yet-unnamed chief technology officer should allow agencies to use persistent cookies.
In February, the White House detailed one of the study's four authors, Bev Godwin, to work as director of online resources and interagency development on the White House's new media team.
Many people are willing to trade some online privacy in exchange for convenience and bargains. But when prompted, many people also say they're worried about online privacy. For example, a survey by TRUSTe, a nonprofit that helps companies manage privacy concerns, on Monday reported a poll in which more than 90 percent of 1,000 respondents deemed online privacy to be a "really [or] somewhat" important issue.
But even beyond privacy concerns, critics of Google worry about citizens unwittingly adding to the company's bottom line just by visiting government Web sites. The data gathered by Google from WhiteHouse.gov, for example, could help Google target online advertising for politicians, said Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. "The White House has to make its rules regarding the use of digital media transparent, and it can't be engaged in any kind of digital favoritism," said Chester. "The U.S. government should not be a subsidiary of Silicon Valley, especially of Google."
Amy Harder contributed to this report.