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U.S. Government Rethinking Web Visitor Tracking

The federal government could to allow government Web sites to again place cookies on visitors' PCs, reversing a policy instituted in 2000 that forbade the practice on all federal Web sites.

The new policy aims to address privacy concerns by allowing users to opt out of the cookies, by clearly describing their use and purpose, and by not discriminating against those who opt out.

The federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) this week asked for comment on the new policy, after which the government will decide whether to proceed with the changes.

The policy will detail the use of three types of cookies. One is for cookies that last a single session, the next is for those that last multiple sessions but are for analytics only and do not identify the user, and the third level is for those that store user settings and therefore track an individual.

"It is anticipated that there would be more stringent restrictions or review of the uses of such technologies within the tiers that have higher privacy risks associated with them," the OMB said in its notice about the change in the Federal Register (available here in .PDF format).

Government policy follows the consumer Web

The policy change is intended to allow the government to take advantage of technologies developed for commercial Web sites.

"During the past nine years, Web tracking technologies have become a staple on most commercial Web sites with widespread public acceptance of their use," the notice said. "Technologies such as persistent cookies enable Web sites to remember a visitor's preferences and settings, allowing for a more personalized, user-friendly experience."

"Moreover, such technologies are necessary for accurate analytics of Web traffic, which helps to inform decisions about how to improve a Web site so that it can better serve the public," the notice added.

Experts at analytics firm Webtrends had already suggested that the administration embrace cookies.

"Because cookies work behind the scenes, many of the benefits enabled by cookies including enhancing and improving Internet experiences are not fully appreciated," wrote James McDermott, Webtrends vice president for partnerships and general counsel, in a blog post one month ago.

"By gaining visibility to traffic patterns, for example, visitors to a government site can engage in a process of discovering information such as the states from which other site visitors tend to come and the issues that are top of mind to others in the nation," he said. "This window into site statistics can act as a very powerful social media tool."

But the government must communicate well with site visitors.

"We counsel our customers to be transparent about their use of cookies in the operation of their business and further recommend the use of a first party cookie that is explicitly highlighted in their privacy policy," Jascha Kaykas-Wolff, Webtrends' vice president of marketing, said in an e-mail to InternetNews.com.

The OMB comment period ends Aug. 10. Until then, users can comment on the Web at http://www.regulations.gov or at http://www.whitehouse.gov/open, by e-mail to oira_submission@omb.eop.gov, or by fax to (202) 395-7245.