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The Federal Communications Commission said Friday that it can't force Internet companies like Google, Facebook and ad providers from tracking users online. The commission had been petitioned by the privacy advocacy group Consumer Watchdog to make the "Do Not Track" setting in many browsers illegal to ignore.
"Do Not Track" was created by researchers as a standard signal browsers can send along with other data when visiting a website. When detected, it is supposed to limit the amount of data advertisers and other online tracking companies collect. That reduced collection, however, must be voluntary: The setting merely indicates a preference, it doesn't obscure the user's data the way encryption does.
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Though the FCC enacted strong Net Neutrality rules earlier this year, which also provide consumer protections, it explained in a written decision that enforcing "Do Not Track" falls outside its jurisdiction.
"The Commission has been unequivocal in declaring that it has no intent to regulate edge providers," reads the order. Edge providers are companies like Microsoft and Twitter that provide Internet-related services but not actual Internet connections. "We therefore find that the Consumer Watchdog Petition plainly does not warrant consideration by the Commission."
Consumer Watchdogs is unhappy with the decision, but intends to continue pursuing related privacy initiatives.
"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," said the group's Privacy Project director John Simpson in a statement. "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."
A "Do Not Track" backed by law would have been a powerful tool in the hands of privacy-conscious Internet users, but for now any response made by advertisers and the like in response to the setting will be strictly voluntary.