Google is not happy about media reports that the White House has switched from Google-owned YouTube in favor of a flash-based embedded media player powered by Akamai Technologies. The White House made the unannounced move Feb. 28 after privacy advocates questioned the implications of having users of WhiteHouse.gov-the White House's official site-getting tagged with a YouTube tracking cookie.
Throughout his successful campaign for the White House, President Obama made extensive use of YouTube to communicate his message. After Obama took office, the White House continued to use YouTube as a vehicle of choice, particularly for Obama's weekly video chats. After the switch to cookieless Akamai, one news organization trumpeted that the White House had "ditched" YouTube.
"That report is wrong. The White House decision does not mean that the White House has stopped using YouTube," Steve Grove of YouTube News and Politics wrote March 2 on the Google Public Policy Blog. "The White House continues to post videos to its YouTube channel, as do other agencies like the U.S. Department of Education and the State Department. These channels are part of a broader effort within the General Services Administration ... to help federal agencies communicate directly with citizens on YouTube."
The privacy complaints came from organizations such as the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and the CDC (Center for Digital Democracy), who argued that the White House shouldn't be in the business of tracking users. The White House first responded by ensuring that tracking cookies didn't kick in until the user actually clicked on the video.
Before Obama's Feb. 28 weekly video address, the White House implemented its new policy of eliminating all cookies by placing the embedded video player on government servers. White House spokesperson Nick Shapiro said the changes were an experiment as the administration continues to find its way through the thicket of government regulations.
"As the president continues his goal of making government more accessible and transparent, this week we tested a new way of presenting the president's weekly address by using a player developed in-house," Shapiro said in a statement. "This decision is more about better understanding our internal capabilities than it is a position on third-party solutions or a policy. The weekly address was also published in third-party video-hosting communities and we will likely continue to embed videos from these services on WhiteHouse.gov in the future."
The EFF said March 2 it is happy with the adapted White House video policy, but privacy questions still remain. "Even with this change, there will be room for further improvement," the EFF said in a March 2 blog posting. "YouTube cookies are not the only third-party Web tracking technology in use on government Web sites ... There is still the issue of 'invisible pixel'-style Webbug/tracker[s] on every page on the site, hosted by WebTrends.com, which raises equally important concerns."