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Third party tracking 'still legal,' according to FCC

FCC rules that companies can ignore 'do not track' requests. What does this mean for you?

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Third-party web tracking is still legal, a new ruling has found.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has dismissed a petition by Consumer Watchdog that would forbid Internet companies from tracking consumers. According to the FCC, the petition was inconsistent with its rules on Internet bias.

The petition was part of an ongoing movement to protect consumers who don’t want to be tracked by third-party web trackers, and aimed to provide consumers with a “Do Not Track” setting in their Web browsers.

Some companies are already committed to honoring “Do Not Track” requests sent in by consumers. But others, like Google, Facebook, YouTube, Pandora, Netflix, and LinkedIn rely on third-party tracking to store data on consumers for data analytics, advertising networks and social networking platforms. For example, you click on a cat video, and soon your Facebook page will be advertising cat products to you.

How does third-party tracking work? 

It all begins with an innocent “cookie,” a small bit of data loaded onto a Web browser. Every time a user opens a new web page, a cookie is sent back to the browser to monitor any previous activity. For the most part, cookies are safe: they can’t contain viruses and help store data.

But, as MIT's Technology Review notes, the “safety” line gets blurred is when third-party trackers, such as advertisers or analytics companies, start piecing together a profile of a user based on users' cookie data.

What do these companies do with the data?

That’s a question Marjan Falahrastegar of Queen Mary University decided to undertake. Ms. Falahrastegar “tracked the trackers” by looking at over 500 popular domains that had cookies that didn’t match the accessed website. The team collected data from 28 countries and found that major companies such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and eBay had third-party domains all around the world, particularly on German and Russian websites, followed by ones in Turkey and Israel. Most European countries and Australia have specific laws on how users must be notified by companies. 

“Our observations suggest that privacy regulation, particularly in the area of cloud computing, requires more attention from the regulatory community,” Falahrastegar concluded. 

Concerns over third-party tracking have risen in recent years following Edward Snowden’s major NSA leak in 2013, which revealed government-held data on private citizens. Other reports have found that third-party trackers aren’t limited to the Internet: they track phone apps on Apple and Android smartphones, according to the BBC.

“Consumers’ privacy concerns about the Internet extend far beyond the broadband providers who are impacted by Section 222. Many consumers are as concerned – or perhaps even more worried – about the online tracking and data collection practices of edge providers,” Consumer Watchdog wrote.

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