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Me Want Cookie

The current federal government policy on cookies, which has not changed in 10 years, has placed strict limitations on the use of persistent cookies on government websites. The result of these limitations is that government web pages are less useable and citizen-friendly than they otherwise could be. As ITIF argued earlier this year, government agencies need flexibility to create new online content and applications without unnecessary restrictions on the use of particular technologies.

The Obama administration’s proposal to revamp the dated website policy on the use of persistent cookies has drawn criticism from certain “anti-cookie” organizations. Groups like EPIC and EFF charge that changing government policy to allow cookies on government websites “fails to protect the privacy rights of U.S. citizens.” While it would seem these groups just have a chocolate chip on their shoulders, their argument made it to page two of the Washington Post.

So getting right to the heart of their argument, does using cookies on government websites violate some basic human right? Of course not. Cookies are not even a serious threat to privacy. Cookies are used for everything from personalizing websites to facilitating online commerce to improving web applications. Cookies can be used to authenticate users so that the user does not have to always enter a username and password to access a website. And web developers use cookies to implement more advance web analytics to understand their client better and create better online experiences.

Plus, as others have pointed out, the debate over cookies are so 1996. Today, cookies are used on all 10 of the most popular private-sector websites, such as Google, YouTube and Facebook. And web browsers today give users detailed control over which cookies are accepted and how long to store them. Arguments against cookies are as stale as month-old ginger snaps. So why do these groups persist in attacking cookies? Well, as a fortune cookie once told me, “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind, and won’t change the subject.”

Past and current government officials have identified the cookie policy as an impediment to more advanced e-government applications. It is good news that the Obama administration is technology-savvy enough to recognize the opportunities to make e-government work better.

Let’s face it: the government’s current policy on cookies is half-baked. So let’s sprinkle on a dash of hope and maybe the next one will come out better.

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About the author

Daniel Castro is vice president at ITIF. His research interests include health IT, data privacy, e-commerce, e-government, electronic voting, information security, and accessibility. Previously, Castro worked as an IT analyst at the Government Accountability Office where he audited IT security and management controls at various government agencies. He has a B.S. in foreign service from Georgetown University and an M.S. in information security technology and management from Carnegie Mellon University.