What FCC’s Move Against ‘Do Not Track’ Means

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"Do Not Track" is in big trouble after a new U.S Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling against it. On Nov. 6, the FCC issued a ruling stating that major Web services, including Google, Facebook, YouTube, Pandora, Netflix and LinkedIn, do not have to honor Do Not Track requests.

The first time I heard about Do Not Track (DNT) was back in 2011 when I visited the Toronto offices of Mozilla. The basic premise of DNT is sublime: Simply put, it is a binary indicator for privacy preferences. The binary indicator is a simple HTTP header of DNT=1, which indicates the user doesn't want to be tracked, or DNT=0, which means the user is OK with tracking.

It really can't be any simpler. Back in 2011, Mozilla was among the organizations that were optimistic about the opportunities for user privacy that DNT offered. Firefox 4 was among the first browsers to support DNT as well.

The problem is that DNT is an opt-in model for Websites to actually respect the DNT choice of the user. The hope of DNT in 2011 was that Websites would want to respect user choice on tracking, but as it turns out, that hope was somewhat misplaced.

In 2015, even early adopters of DNT have walked away from supporting the effort. In May 2014, Yahoo backed out of supporting DNT, even though it was initially enthusiastic about the effort.

In a bid to force the issue of DNT support, consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog filed a petition in June with the FCC to get a ruling that would require large Internet content providers (referred to by Consumer Watchdog as "edge providers") to respect DNT.

The FCC's ruling isn't about the validity of DNT or even about enforcing privacy, but rather is more about the commission's jurisdiction.

"The commission has been unequivocal in declaring that it has no intent to regulate edge providers," the FCC ruling states. "We therefore find that, pursuant to section 1.401(e) of our rules, the Consumer Watchdog Petition plainly do[es] not warrant consideration by the commission."

The FCC does, however, emphasize in its ruling that Section 222 of the U.S. Communications Act provides a degree of privacy protection for Internet users.

"Section 222 of  the Communications Act governs telecommunications carriers' protection and use of information obtained from their customers or other carriers, and calibrates the protection of  such information based on its sensitivity," the FCC states. "The commission has adopted rules implementing Section 222's privacy protections with respect to providers of voice services, has amended those rules over time to respond to emerging threats to consumer privacy and has vigorously enforced those rules."

So the issue is not that the FCC doesn't want large Web content providers to protect user privacy, it's just that it won't force those providers to respect DNT.

No, it doesn't make much sense. DNT seems like an obvious (and easy) way to help protect consumers. In fact, the initial impetus for DNT was a 2010 U.S Federal Trade Commission (FTC) staff report that suggested that some form of tracking protection be created to help consumers.

So now what's happening is instead of DNT, organizations like Mozilla are implementing tracking protection, which is a more invasive way of doing DNT. Instead of a Website voluntarily respecting user choice, Mozilla is just blocking tracking technology elements in the first place.

The battle over tracking is far from over and will likely extend for years more to come as the industry continues to try to figure out how to monetize online users and privacy advocates continue to defend user's rights.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

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