More than a year after announcing plans to do so, Facebook has started to roll out a tool to let users better control their privacy — to see which apps and websites are sharing their activity with Facebook, and to stop Facebook from accessing it.
However, the Off-Facebook Activity feature will initially be available only in three countries: Ireland, South Korea and Spain. “We will continue to roll it out everywhere over the coming months to help ensure it’s working reliably for everyone,” Erin Egan, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, policy, and David Baser, director of product management, said in a blog post announcing the tool.
The Off-Facebook Activity feature shows users a summary of the apps and websites that send Facebook information about their activity, which Facebook uses to better target ads. The tool will let users clear that information and also disconnect all future off-Facebook activity from their accounts (or only for specific apps and websites). That data technically will not be deleted, but Facebook says it will no longer link the external browsing history of individual users who opt-out to their accounts. Also note that the company will still track and retain data about users’ activity on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
Facebook’s Egan and Baser said the practice of online businesses sharing data about users’ behavior with ad platforms and other services “is how much of the internet works.” But, they added, “given that the average person with a smartphone has more than 80 apps and uses about 40 of them every month, it can be really difficult for people to keep track of who has information about them and what it’s used for.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg first announced the plans for a “clear history” tool in May 2018 at the company’s F8 developer conference, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which the consulting firm misappropriated info on millions of Facebook users without their knowledge or consent.
The social-media giant has acknowledged that giving people the ability to remove their browsing history is going to have an impact on revenue. “Privacy is a headwind for us in 2019,” Facebook CFO David Wehner said, speaking at a Morgan Stanley investment conference in February. “It’s one of the factors that’s contributing to our expected deceleration of revenue growth throughout the year.”
Facebook’s move to enhance user privacy has been spurred by a backlash over the company’s mishandling of user info and revelations about its data-sharing practices, which has prompted increased scrutiny by regulators and politicians.
In June, Facebook entered into a 20-year settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over privacy violations, under which the company is paying a record-breaking $5 billion fine and will submit to new oversight by the commission. However, the FTC deal doesn’t put anything in place that will fundamentally change how Facebook does business, including how it sells advertising or collects data on users.
As part of Facebook’s efforts to regain trust, Zuckerberg earlier this year outlined a privacy-focused strategy for the company. Among other things, he said, Facebook is working on a way to let users set messages to vanish after a preset time limit and will no longer retain data in countries with “weak records on human rights like privacy and freedom of expression.”