Group asks FCC to make websites honor do-not-track requests

The agency has an obligation to protect privacy and promote broadband deployment, Consumer Watchdog says

Privacy

Privacy

A consumer rights group wants the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to address growing online privacy concerns by requiring websites to honor do-no-track requests.

Consumer Watchdog filed a formal petition on Monday calling for new FCC rules forcing companies like Google, Facebook, Pandora and Netflix to respect do-not-track requests from a visitor's browser.

While some websites do honor the requests, there's no regulation requiring them to do so, and many do not, noted John Simpson, Privacy Project director at the organization. Many available tools for online users block targeted advertising based on online tracking, but don't block data collection, he said. Specific regulations that require websites to honor a do-not-track request and spell out penalties if it's not "are essential," he said.

Internet service providers may have new privacy rules to comply with after the FCC reclassified broadband as a regulated, common-carrier service in the agency's net neutrality regulations, passed earlier this year, Simpson noted. But websites and Web-based services, sometimes called edge providers, have no such privacy regulations, he said.

It's "just not right" to make ISPs comply with new privacy rules when much of the data collection online comes from edge providers, Simpson said.

"Consumers' privacy concerns about the Internet extend far beyond the broadband providers who are impacted" by new net neutrality rules, Consumer Watchdog wrote in its petition to the FCC. "Many consumers are as concerned -- or perhaps even more worried -- about the online tracking and data collection practices of edge providers."

Consumer Watchdog pointed to a survey about privacy published in May by the Pew Research Center. Ninety-three percent of respondents in the survey said it was important for them to be in control of who can get information about them.

Consumers are concerned about the digital dossiers being assembled as they surf the web, often without their knowledge and consent, Consumer Watchdog wrote to the FCC.

The FCC has the authority to create do-not-track rules for edge providers because a provision in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the agency to monitor whether broadband is being deployed across the country in a timely manner, and to take immediate action if it is not, Consumer Watchdog said. By acting on privacy concerns from consumers, the FCC can "bolster the rate of broadband adoption," the group said.

In late 2010, staff with the FCC's sister agency, the Federal Trade Commission, recommended a national do-not-track list that would prohibit websites and advertising networks from following Web users' movements online. In a follow-up report from 2012, the FTC called for online companies to regulate their own tracking activities.

Internet industry groups have generally opposed proposed do-not-track regulations, saying new rules are unnecessary. Industry self-regulation, and tools provided by websites and other organizations, have given Web users control over their privacy, they have argued.

Three industry groups advocating for self-regulation didn't immediately respond to requests for comments on the Consumer Watchdog proposal.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags governmentregulationinternetU.S. Federal Communications CommissionConsumer WatchdogJohn Simpson

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Grant Gross

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