“Do Not Track” Requests are Meaningless, FCC won’t compel Internet companies to honour them

by Matt Klassen on November 10, 2015

I’m not sure how many of us know that most popular web browsers have a “Do Not Track” option, that when enabled, signals to websites that those users are requesting those websites to ignore their data. Now in theory all the websites that you visit while having the “Do Not Track” option enabled should not record or retain any information about you, but the problem is that this entire privacy protocol depends on the honour system, meaning that such requests are exactly that, requests, and there is no obligation for the website to respect them.

Recently privacy advocate and rights group Consumer Watchdog filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission, calling on regulators compel “edge providers” such as Google, Facebook, Netflix, YouTube, LinkedIn and others “to honour ‘Do Not Track’ Requests from consumers”.

But in helpful FCC fashion, the Commission has denied the petition, and alarmingly confessed that it can’t force Internet companies, particularly data collection behemoths like Facebook and Google, from tracking users and compiling data regarding their online behaviour, meaning users are beholden to the whims of those who control the Internet, companies who scoff at the very notion that we might want to explore the worldwide web without being watched.

The problem is this, the overwhelming majority of websites you visit track your habits, collect your personal data, and compile them into digital commodities that are often sold to anonymous third parties. As University of Pennsylvania privacy researcher Tim Libert explains, “If you visit any of the top one million sites there is a 90 percent chance largely hidden parties will get information about your browsing. Most troubling is that if you use your browser setting to say ‘Do Not Track’ me, the explicitly stated policy of nearly all the companies is to flat-out ignore you.”

So not only do Internet companies track your habits and collect data on you, they buy and sell this data without your knowledge or consent, and the only recourse we have is a “Do Not Track” request that companies are not obliged to respect. While admittedly some companies do heed the request, the problem is that companies like Google and Facebook have built an empire collecting and selling your data to advertisers, meaning if there was an easy way for you to stop them, their revenue streams would all but dry up (and they don’t like that idea).

While you might think the FCC would have something to say about the blatant rejection of “Do Not Track” requests made in good faith, well you’d be wrong. According to the FCC, its job is not “regulating the internet, per se, or any internet applications or content”, but only the “transmission component” of internet access services. Simply put, the FCC makes sure the traffic is flowing relatively freely; it doesn’t care about the fact that traffic contains bundles of data about citizens most often obtained without their permission.

In a response to the decision, Watchdog’s Privacy Project director John Simpson was clearly displeased. “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’s statement notes. “Requiring that ‘Do Not Track’ requests be honoured 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.”

I will admit that I’m starting to come around on the need for data collection, meaning that when it comes to the devices in this connected everything existence doing what we want them to do; they need to track us in order to understand us in order to serve us. We can’t have our cake and eat it too. But that said, there does need to be a way to stem the flow of data collection, particularly for those who don’t want to utilize the full gamut of services derived from that

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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