“Do Not Track” requests from Web users will continue to have little real meaning in the wake of a recent FCC ruling that does not require websites to respect the requests.
The ruling was a response to a petition that the group Consumer Watchdog created. The petition called upon the FCC, which regulates Internet communications in the United States, to legally prevent websites like Google, Facebook and YouTube from tracking users if users submit a “Do Not Track” request through their Web browsers.
Most modern browsers support the “Do Not Track” feature. In Firefox, for example, you can turn it on in the preferences dialog. Once enabled, the feature sends information in HTTP headers whenever you visit a website to indicate that you prefer not to be tracked.
While the feature is a good way for users to express a preference for privacy, it has no teeth. Websites that receive the request can simply ignore it. The petition to the FCC would have changed that by mandating that websites avoid tracking users upon request.
In rejecting the petition, the FCC said that it was not within its authority to force websites to respect “Do Not Track” requests, since it is not the FCC’s responsibility to “regulate…Internet applications or content.” The agency did not dismiss the idea behind the petition; it just contended that the petition’s goal was not something the FCC could enforce.
Evaluating the Ruling
On the surface, the FCC ruling may seem like bad news for supporters of Internet privacy. But in two main ways, it’s actually healthy.
First, the FCC’s decision not to interfere with the way users access websites sets an anti-censorship precedent. Although in this case greater FCC regulation would have helped to strengthen online privacy, a ruling from the FCC that orders websites to behave in a certain way is a step in the direction of online censorship. Arguably, it’s better for the FCC, as a government agency, to keep its nose as far as possible from regulating online content for any reason.
Second, since the “Do Not Track” feature doesn’t actually implement any technical changes that make users harder to track, the FCC’s endorsement of it might have led to a false sense of security for users. Even if the FCC ordered websites to respect “Do Not Track” requests, it would be very difficult to enforce that stipulation — especially with sites not based in the United States — and assure that sites that claim not to track users are truly not doing so.