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Federal Cookie Monsters

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Federal Cookie Monsters

By SteveH
Published: March 23, 2010

The Business.gov community has been operational now over two months and has steadily grown since its mid-February launch to over 2,500 registered users. As we talk to colleagues and stakeholders about the community, one of the inevitable questions is “What’s next”? What you the end user community would like us to do and what’s doable as a federal sponsored online community might be two different things. This article seeks user input on the use of 'persistent' cookies on the Business.gov community.

What is a persistent cookie?

A natural evolution of the community and business.gov would be to provide more personalized services. In fact, on more than one occasion, you have asked us to enable personalization so that, if you choose, you can customize your experience on Business.gov by setting preferences much as you can and do for e-commerce sites. Most e-commerce sites enable this personalization through the use of “persistent cookies,” a unique identifier for a user stored in a file on the user’s computer. Although used for a variety of things, a cookie’s main function is to track a visitor’s habits and information related to the user’s browsing habits, the visitor's site password, pages visited within the site, how the user found the site, and detailed statistical data including the length of time for each visit per site or per page.

Current policy and practice on federal agency use of persistent cookies

The Center for Democracy and Technology provides a brief history on the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)’s 2000 policy that effectively bans the use of “persistent cookies” on federal web sites. OMB’s overarching concern was to protect user privacy rights, but the process of seeking waivers to the policy are so onerous that agencies have little incentive to even explore whether users might be willing to “opt in” By requiring the head of federal agencies to approve the use of persistent cookies on .gov web sites, the OMB policy virtually assures that no agency has or will use them. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit in 2001 of agency practices found a few non-compliant agencies. More recently, the White House changed the privacy policy for whitehouse.gov to allow the use of persistent cookies when users click “play” on third party video providers used on the site.

As a practical matter most federal web sites, including this community, have chosen to comply with this OMB directive and not seek a waiver.There is a possibility, though, that this policy might be reconsidered. Within and around the federal web community, groups as diverse at the Center for Democracy and Technology, the National Academy for Public Administration (NAPA)’s collaboration project, and selected leaders of the Federal Web Content Managers Council have called for OMB to revisit its persistent cookie policy so that agencies and end users might be able to able realize some of the benefits of persistent cookies. These discussions outline both the benefits and some of the risks for users to allow the use of persistent cookies in their web browsers.

Potential benefits of persistent cookies

In addition, managers of federal web sites and communities can use the data gathered to better design and evolve web offerings to meet users’ needs. For instance, by tracking how users browse a web site, the federal agency can better determine which pages are the most popular and useful to a particular type of user and continue to focus efforts on developing them.

Conversely, web pages that get little repeat traffic might need to be improved, promoted better or abandoned for lack of interest. Another benefit is that users would have a more seamless experience on the web site because it is possible to enable available features that make navigation and contributing easier. For the users of this community, what are your thoughts on the risks and benefits of persistent cookies? Is this a concern of yours? Are you concerned about the use of your “personal” data? Are you frustrated that personalization is not an option? Are you content that federal websites are essentially prohibited from using persistent cookies? Gives us your thoughts or contribute to the forums referenced in this blog to contribute to this debate!

Message Edited by erinirving on 04-27-2009 01:25 PM

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Thanks for the reply Erin. I can see this being an awesome place to network and share ideas with the right people at the healm. I will submit my idea about the blog and a few others that I have. Best Regards, Daniel
We're all concerned about the abuse of personal information! The privacy aspects of the persistent cookie policy are admirable, but it seems a bit excessive for two reasons:1) the (commercial) norm elsewhere on the web is far (too far!) to the other extreme, so the Government is employing tools that were designed to work with cookie, and2)  average users are accustomed to the benefits of persistent cookies, and they might not understand why Government web sites ask them for the same basic information over and over again. One thought:  the technology has evolved to the point where you could make use of Web 2.0 interactivity to:- let the user opt-in for persistent cookies, - have a translucent palette that would remind them that they've done so, and - allow them to opt-out again at a later point in time, should they change their mind. This should be done for each agency, so that individuals could prevent cookies on the IRS web site, but take advantage of them while exploring their benefits on the Social Security site!
Good achievement for Business.gov community getting such huge amount of user registration and getting such good response.Given last poiont Potential benefits of persistent cookies may been very useful if consider seriously and implement.ContractorMessage Edited by NicoleD on 09-09-2009 12:33 PM
The only time I believe that cookies are an Invasion of privacy is when they are used by marketing companies to see exactly what the user is thinking when they are online. MD Medical Doctor Nutrition Asian Education Message Edited by NicoleD on 08-06-2009 02:38 PM
I still think that cookies are a great way no to spy but to keep up the personolized interactions between the browser and the user. Thanks for listening and as always have Suicide Prevention on your mind Sorry about the broken linkMessage Edited by NicoleD on 08-06-2009 02:39 PM
Great Article! Cookies are great for making the internet more user friendly. The personalization of the web helps with the free flow of information. Regards,Jennifer Practicing Marriage Counselor PsychologistMessage Edited by NicoleD on 08-06-2009 02:40 PM
Thank you for your feedback, Panadol! We are hoping to be able to use persistent cookies in the near future to help customers like you, who want to take advantage of the benefits of personalization. As for the idea about your own blog, I suggest that you submit an idea in the current Idea Exchange, Where Do You Typically Go for Business Advice?, to share where you currently get business advice and recommendations for how this Community can better serve you. Regards,Erin
Almost all the main stream social media and networking websites use persistent cookies. It gives the end user a better experience when browsing. I for one hate when I have to login to a website every time I visit it or change my preferences.I think it would be cool if you guys created a way for use to have our own blog so we can document our business experiences. I have several business's online and off. I am looking to open my first restaurant and would document my experience if I had a blog here. I have many of my own blogs but if it were here other members could find it easier.Daniel, bad credit loans specialist & CEO.Message Edited by NicoleD on 08-06-2009 02:40 PM
Thanks for the reply Erin. I can see this being an awesome place to network and share ideas with the right people at the healm. I will submit my idea about the blog and a few others that I have. Best Regards,Daniel

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