Will Facebook’s Forthcoming “Off-Facebook Activity” Tool Fulfill the Promise of a Clear History?

Eighteen months after its announcement (and almost six months after we last wrote about it), Facebook’s history clearing tool has finally taken shape and been deployed in three countries for testing. Called “Off-Facebook Activity,” it provides users a clearer look at the other apps and websites that are sharing their data—and offers them the option to “disconnect their historical browsing data from their accounts entirely, or to remove data from individual sites and apps. The tool also lets people turn off data-sharing from all sites and apps off Facebook,” the New York Times reported in their coverage of the tool.

Evidently, their arrival at this version of the feature took longer than expected; Facebook officials asked about the multiple delays noted that this sort of endeavor is unprecedented. With no models to follow, they forged ahead—reportedly with user input guiding them:

Facebook said it initially hoped to provide an option that would let users delete the entire repository of data that the company collected from other sites to improve its targeting of ads. But Facebook said its research showed that people did not want such an all-or-nothing option. Instead, Facebook said, users frequently asked for better visibility into which sites were providing browsing-habit data to the company, and more control over how the information was shared.

The language choice is deliberate: at one point, they apparently considered an option to delete, whereas now they’ve arrived at a “disconnect” option. “Disconnect” means that identifying information will be removed from what data is collected. But make no mistake: Facebook will continue to collect it. What’s more, this “transparency and control” (to emphasize the terminology Facebook has deployed in all efforts dedicated to this goal) applies to any data shared with non-Facebook entities. The process to disconnect the data collected from your in-app activity is separate…and, as I learned once when trying to complete it, tedious.

Image via Facebook

Limited images of the tool are available on the company’s Newsroom post announcing the tool’s debut, but these images show little about how the tool can actually be used. But even with a simpler process, they’re reportedly prepared for this security to compromise their wildly lucrative ad business. “If this were widely adopted, it would mean less overall revenue for Facebook […] and that’s okay,” Director of Product Management David Baser shared, acknowledging the conflict between their business model and their promise of heightened security—both to Facebook users, and in compliance with their multimillion-dollar settlement earlier this year. This aligns with how Facebook Business sought to prepare users of their ad placement tools back in May:

When someone disconnects their off-Facebook activity, we won’t use the data they clear for targeting. This means that targeting options powered by Facebook’s business tools, like the Facebook pixel, can’t be used to reach someone with ads. This includes Custom Audiences built from visitors to websites or apps. Businesses should keep this in mind when developing strategies for these kinds of campaigns in the second half of the year and beyond.

In any case, Facebook will be closely watching the tool’s deployment in Ireland, South Korea and Spain. According to AdWeek, the rollout is happening on a small scale “in order to ensure that the tool is working reliably, with plans to make it available globally over the coming months.”

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