After a long delay, Facebook is releasing a tool that will allow people to see what kind of information it has collected about their online activity beyond its borders — from the news they read to the shopping websites they visit to the porn they watch — along with an option to dissociate that data from their accounts.
Facebook collects information about its users in two ways: first, through the information you input into its website and apps, and second, by tracking which websites you visit while you’re not on Facebook. That’s why, after you visit a clothing retailer’s website, you’ll likely see an ad for it in your Facebook News Feed or Instagram feed. Basically, Facebook monitors where you go, all across the internet, and uses your digital footprints to target you with ads. But Facebook users have never been able to view this external data Facebook collected about them, until now.
Facebook tracks your browsing history via the “Login with Facebook” button, the “like” button, Facebook comments, and little bits of invisible code, called the Facebook pixel, embedded on other sites (including BuzzFeed News). Today the company will start to roll out a feature called “Off-Facebook Activity” that allows people to manage that external browsing data — finally delivering on a promise it made over a year ago when CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced at a company event that it would develop a feature then called “Clear History.”
The new tool will display a summary of those third-party websites that shared your visit with Facebook, and will allow you to disconnect that browsing history from your Facebook account. You can also opt out of future off-Facebook activity tracking, or selectively stop certain websites from sending your browsing activity to Facebook. Nearly a third of all websites include a Facebook tracker, according to several studies.
Some people in Ireland, South Korea, and Spain will gain access to Off-Facebook Activity first. Facebook said it will continue rolling out the feature everywhere else over the coming months. The tool, found in account Settings > Off-Facebook Activity, includes an option allowing you to “clear” your browsing history.
However, it’s important to note that neither Facebook’s announcement nor screenshots of the feature mention the word “delete” — and that’s because the browsing information isn’t being deleted, it’s simply dissociated from your Facebook account, according to a Facebook spokesperson. In other words, Facebook will still hold on to the data but will anonymize it rather than pair it with your profile.
For example, although your browsing history won’t be used to advertise a discount to an online store you’ve visited before, the activity will still appear in aggregated audience data shown to developers using Facebook’s analytics tools.
If you disable off-Facebook activity collection or clear off-Facebook activity history, your browsing history won’t be used to target ads to you on Facebook, Instagram, or Messenger, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, Erin Egan, wrote in a blog post.
However, the data isn’t being removed from Facebook servers. Just as Facebook still collects aggregated, anonymous browsing information from people who are logged out or don’t have Facebook accounts, Facebook will treat people who have opted out of external website tracking similarly, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed to BuzzFeed News.
The tool is finally launching, more than a year after the company initially said it would release the feature, originally marketed as “Clear History” by Zuckerberg at the company’s May 2018 developer conference, F8. In February, people familiar with the origins of Clear History said that Zuckerberg rushed the announcement at the event as a public relations play to curb criticism over the company’s stance on privacy and customer data in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Clear History, an international ad campaign focused on how “fake news” and “clickbait” are not your friends, and a privacy-themed pop-up store in New York City were the company’s attempts at garnering goodwill, people who spoke to BuzzFeed News earlier this year said.
“It’s public relations,” one former employee told BuzzFeed News. “It’s ‘Hey, look at this shiny thing, please don’t pay attention to this mushroom cloud.’”
Clear History was marred by a number of delays, with Facebook telling Recode in December that “it’s taking longer than we initially thought” because of issues with how data is stored and processed. Facebook engineers rebuilt the way the browsing data is indexed in order to allow users to disconnect their browsing history and opt out of personalized tracking moving forward, a spokesperson said.
The company has moved away from the Clear History name, noting that the feature is just one of three main tools in Off-Facebook Activity. A spokesperson would not say how many accounts Facebook expects to use the feature, but did confirm that it may have an impact on the company’s bottom line, since it will affect how ads are targeted in the future.
When asked about Clear History in March in an interview with CNBC, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said “our bottom line is getting this right,” while implying the change in ad targeting might slow growth rate.
“But we believe deeply that doing the right thing for people on our service is the only way to protect our long-term business,” she said. “And it is the right thing to do.”