FCC to Tighten Online Privacy and Security Oversight

John Lister's picture

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has hired a noted privacy campaigner to investigate Internet providers. It's part of a joint move with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to strengthen security and privacy measures in the communications industry.

Jonathan Mayer has been hired as the FCC chief technologist in its enforcement division. In effect, he'll deal with the practical issues involved in deciding whether or not a company is following the law. It's a strong sign the commission intends to get tougher on company violations.

New Appointee Exposed Google Trickery

Mayer has previously worked as a computer scientist and made his name by researching and promoting security issues. In 2012, he publicly revealed that Google was deliberately inserting misleading code into its advertisements to fool the Safari web browser.

This code meant that Safari would track user activity online and report it to Google, despite the fact that the browser was set up to block such tracking by default and was only meant to override this block if the user themselves specifically opted out.

While the bogus code wasn't unlawful in itself, it undermined Google's claims not to track users. The Federal Trade Commission later ruled that these claims were thus misleading and began action that led to Google paying a record $22.5 million settlement, but not formally admitting any wrongdoing. (Source: nytimes.com)

Mayer Developed 'Do Not Track'

Mayer also helped develop the concept of a 'Do Not Track' signal, a standardized way for web browsers to inform websites that users did not want their online activities tracked. Although there are ongoing plans to build 'Do Not Track' signal into web standards, it remains a voluntary measure and major advertisers including Google have refused to take any heed of the signals. (Source: washingtonpost.com)

The appointment comes shortly after the FTC and FCC signed a memorandum of understanding about cooperating together on privacy and security issues in the tech industry. That follows concerns that the relationship between the two could get in the way of investigations, either because the two agencies overlapped authority, or because some alleged violations fell through the regulatory cracks.

What's Your Opinion?

Is the FCC right to appoint an outspoken privacy campaigner to a senior role? Should tech firms face closer regulation on security and privacy issues? Or are the two government agencies overstepping their boundaries?

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