But for those White House web site visitors who do click on the YouTube videos, they will likely become part of the data analysis which could be generated via Google’s YouTube Insight. That’s a video analytics tool providing “detailed statistics” on video use. One Google executive offered a commercial example of the tools’ features: “YouTube’s geographical insights could help marketers determine ad effectiveness and campaign optimization. For instance, he said, different versions of a movie trailer might perform better in different regions.” Other YouTube analytical data available includes a “demographics tab that displays view count information broken down by age group (such as ages 18-24), gender, or a combination of the two, to help you get a better understanding of the makeup of your YouTube audience. We show you general information about your viewers in anonymous and aggregate form, based on the birth date and gender information that users share with us when they create YouTube accounts.” (Google says “individual users can’t be personally identified.” But the company has embraced a narrow definition of what privacy protections users should expect, the so-called APEC standard).
Persistent cookies, explains U.S. Military Academy computer science professor Greg Conti, “can exist for many years…repeatedly identifying the user to the issuing web site…persistent cookies are specifically designed to uniquely identify users on return visits to web sites…In terms of anonymity, this is bad. Advertisers have found innovative ways to exploit cookies to track users as they visit web sites that contain ads or other content.” [source is Professor Conti’s terrific book, Googling Security: How Much Does Google Know About You? Addison-Wesley. 2009. Page 73]
Of course, Google/YouTube’s cookie placed via a White House visit sets the stage for the company to further track and analyze citizens/ users. Given YouTube’s ever-growing expansion as a commercial video advertising service, its ability to harness the White House data cookie will undoubtedly prove useful for the company.
The Obama White House should set the standard for protecting privacy in the digital era. They should maintain the prohibition on persistent tracking cookies. Nor should they permit any commercial operator, including Google’s YouTube, to engage in federally-sanctioned data collection. We know the new Obama Administration has many important issues to address. But they also need to develop a sophisticated critique of the online advertising industry, ensuring privacy and consumer protection. The Obama Administration should be able to articulate a balanced perspective– that can take advantage and foster the democratic potential of digital media, while also meaningfully addressing the harms.