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About nine years ago, the U.S. government banned the use of cookies from all of its websites. This week, the Obama administration is going forward with a reversal of the move and allowing web analytics that track users online.

While it may seem strange for the federal government to start tracking users online as it ramps up its investigation into private companies usage of behavioral targeting, it is important that the two issues be kept separate.

The administration is not asking for special priviledges but simply bringing its websites in line with common online practices. And that is a good thing.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center are opposed to the changes, calling it a “massive shift in online privacy policy."

While it may be a shift, it will also allow government webmasters to impement commonly used practices online, like individualized web account logins.

The main issue, however, is letting governmnet sites use cookies. Cookies allow companies to retain information on a user online. While they contribute to the privacy problems that are currently under investigation in Congress, they are also neccessary for basic web surfing to continue uninterrupted today. Without cookies, users have to constantly reenter information that is usually stored by websites.

Currently, the WhiteHouse.gov privacy policy has a waiver that grants YouTube the right to use persistent cookies, but only "to help maintain the integrity of video statistics." The new change would get rid of Google's favored status and grant other sites access to information on government sites as well.

Consumers are in full control over what sites are and are not allowed to use cookies on their computers. According to Cato's Jim Harper:

"Artificially restricting cookies on federal Web sites needlessly hamstrings federal Web sites. When the policy was instituted it threatened to set a precedent for broader regulation of cookie use on the Web. Hopefully, the debate about whether to regulate cookies is over, but further ‘Net nannying is a constant offering of the federal government."

It would be paradoxical for the U.S. government to relax restrictions on its own online tracking habits while it is investigating private companies for doing the same thing. But that's not what's happening here. Instead, these changes would take the handicap off of government sites that was self-imposed over a decade ago. And for Congress to come to any sort of informed decision about online advertising, they need to be able to draw a distinction between privacy violating behaviors and things that make the web more useful for its users.

Meghan Keane

Published 12 August, 2009 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

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