FCC Hires Online Tracking Expert Jonathan Mayer

In a move that signals a focus on Web privacy, the Federal Communications Commission has tapped Jonathan Mayer to serve as chief technologist of its enforcement bureau.

Mayer, a lawyer and computer scientist, is known for exposing questionable privacy practices of tech companies, ranging from large corporations like Google to ad tech companies like Epic Markeplace.

For instance, in January Mayer discovered that Turn was tracking Verizon users through unique identifiers (also called "supercookies") that the telecom injected into mobile traffic -- despite Verizon's claims that its supercookies wouldn't be used by outside ad networks.

Soon after that revelation, Verizon changed its practice and began allowing people to opt out of the supercookies. (More recently, Verizon narrowed its targeting program. Now, the company says it will only send the header "to Verizon companies, including AOL, and to a select set of other companies that help Verizon provide services.")

In 2012, Mayer published research showing that several companies, including Google, were circumventing Safari's no-tracking default settings. The Federal Trade Commission later fined Google $22.5 million for violating its privacy policy, which told users that they wouldn't be tracked if they used the Safari browser.

The year before, Mayer reported that Epic Marketplace was using controversial "history-sniffing" techniques to collect information about people's Web-surfing history directly from their browsers. After Mayer's report came out, the FTC alleged that Epic deceived users by failing to disclose in its privacy policy that it used history-sniffing techniques. That omission could have affected consumers' decision about whether to use Epic's opt-out tool, the FTC said.

Mayer also is known for writing a Firefox patch that would have blocked all third-party cookies by default. Mozilla ultimately decided against moving forward with that initiative.

Mayer's hiring comes as the FCC is gearing up to propose new privacy rules for broadband carriers. FCC Chairman hasn't yet offered specifics, but his recent comments to PBS talk show host Charlie Rosesuggest the agency will require providers to notify consumers about the possibility of online data collection, and allow them to wield control over how that data is used.

The FCC isn't the only agency that has recently beefed up its privacy expertise. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission hired Ashkan Soltani to serve as chief technologist. And in August, the FTC named privacy advocate Justin Brookman to serve as policy director for the Office of Technology Research and Investigation. Brookman recently co-chaired the World Wide Web Consortium's effort to forge standards to honor do-not-track signals.

Jules Polonetsky, executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum, says the new hires show that regulators "are increasingly aware of the need to have experts in house who understand the technologies and data practices of an increasingly complicated data ecosystem."

Interactive Advertising Bureau general counsel Mike Zaneis sounded a more cautionary note. "It seems that the FCC is following the lead of the FTC in hiring very smart, but extremist, privacy advocates to lead their technology departments," Zaneis says. "We can only hope that the Commission will not pursue a European-like privacy regime, which would devastate American innovation in the telecommunications and digital advertising industries."

Next story loading loading..