Feds Seek Input On Web Site Cookie Policy

The government wants to use cookies to offer more personalized Web sites to citizens, better analytics to Webmasters.
Looking to take advantage of modern Web capabilities like personalization and improved Web analytics, the federal government has drafted changes to its outdated restrictions on HTTP cookies, and wants the public's input.

Under the plan, detailed in a blog post by federal CIO Vivek Kundra and associate administrator of the Office of Management and Budget's office of information and regulatory affairs Michael Fitzpatrick, federal agencies would be able to use cookies, as long as their use is lawful, citizens can opt out of being tracked, notice of the use of cookies is posted on the Web site, and Web sites don't limit access to information for those who opt out.

That's a drastic departure from today's approach, created amidst privacy fears in 2000. The current policy amounts to a near-ban on the use of Web tracking technology because the use of cookies requires personal approval by agency secretaries and must be accompanied by a detailed written description of the agency's "compelling need" and privacy measures taken for their use.

The Office of Management and Budget is considering three separate tiers of cookie usage that will likely have different restrictions for each, based on privacy risks. The first tier of sites would use single-session technologies, the second multi-session technologies for use in analytics only, and the third for multi-session cookies that are used to remember data or settings "beyond what is needed for Web analytics."

In June, the OMB noted that it was looking for more public participation in drafting policy changes, specifically calling out the federal cookie policy. "There is a tough balance to find between citizen privacy and the benefits of persistent cookies, and we would welcome your thoughts on how best to strike it," Fitzpatrick and Kundra wrote at the time.

Now, the OMB is more formally asking for input over the next two weeks via e-mail, comments posted on a blog detailing the proposed changes, or comments in response to a Federal Register notice on the subject.

The OMB wants to get the public's take on basic principles governing the use of cookies, tiers of use, acceptable use and restrictions of each tier, the degree to which notice should be given of the use of cookies, and a number of other topics.

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