FCC won't force websites to honor 'Do Not Track'

Dismisses June petition from Consumer Watchdog that would have required Facebook, Google and others to respect consumers' Do Not Track wishes

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Friday dismissed a petition that would have required some of Web's largest firms, including Facebook, Google and Netflix, to honor "Do Not Track" signals from consumers' browsers.

"The Commission has been unequivocal in declaring that it has no intent to regulate edge providers," the FCC declared in the Nov. 6 order (download PDF) that dismissed demands from the California-based consumer advocacy group, Consumer Watchdog.

Edge providers, as defined in the petition filed in June by Consumer Watchdog, are those that provide "content, applications, services, and devices accessed over or connected to broadband Internet access service." The petition (download PDF) singled out Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Netflix, Pandora and YouTube as examples.

The proposed rule would have required online services to honor the Do Not Track (DNT) signal from users' browsers, which would bar those services from "selling, sharing, or otherwise transferring the personal information of the consumer to any other entity, including, but not limited to, a third-party online service." It would have also banned online services from demanding that consumers consent to being tracked in exchange for accessing the provider's content and services.

The FCC countered that although it reclassified Internet service providers (ISPs) as utilities analogous to telecommunications companies earlier this year, it had no intention of regulating the content or applications found on websites under its current rules.

"Recognizing that the existing rules were written for voice services, the Commission held it was 'not persuaded that the Commission's current rules ... necessarily would be well suited to broadband Internet access service,'" the FCC summarized in its order.

DNT signals whether a user wants online advertisers and websites to track their movements, and was modeled after the "Do Not Call" list telemarketers are supposed to respect. All five major browsers -- Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer (IE), Opera and Safari, as well as Microsoft's new Edge -- can send a DNT request. Users, however, must flip an optional setting to send the signal.

The DNT concept has had a tortured history, and the long and often tempestuous effort to come up with a standard has largely failed under pressure from advertising industry groups. Because there is no requirement that sites respect DNT signals, most do not. Some, like Yahoo, which once honored DNT, later backpedaled and now ignore it. Microsoft's IE, which had previously set DNT as on by default, has also retreated from that stance.

Consumer Watchdog swore to continue the fight.

"In the wake of the Federation Communication Commission's denial of its petition seeking online privacy protections at online companies like Google and Facebook, Consumer Watchdog today vowed to press state regulators, Congress and the courts to better protect Internet users' privacy," said the group's president, Jamie Court, and the head of its privacy project, John Simpson, in a statement.

"We believe the FCC has the authority to enforce Internet privacy protections far more broadly than they have opted to do and are obviously disappointed by this decision," Simpson added. "Requiring that Do Not Track requests be honored is a simple way to give people necessary control of their information and is in no way an attempt to regulate the content of the Internet."

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