Facebook Gives Privacy-Minded Users Some Control Over Activity Tracking

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Facebook on Tuesday announced the release of Off-Facebook Activity, a tool that will let members see which apps and websites supply information about their online activity, and clear that information from their Facebook accounts if they wish.

It will roll out initially to members in Ireland, South Korea and Spain.

Once members have cleared their off-Facebook activity, Facebook will remove their identifying information from the data it gets from the apps and websites they visit.

Facebook then will not know which websites members visited or what they did there. It will not use any of the disconnected data to target ads to members on Facebook, Instagram or Messenger.

Members also can choose to disconnect future off-Facebook activity from their accounts — either all off-Facebook activity, or activity limited to specific apps and websites.

Off-Facebook activity tool

“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,” said Erin Egan, chief privacy officer, policy, and David Baser, director of product management, in a post announcing the new tool.

Off-Facebook Activity provides consumers with safety, security, knowledge, transparency and control, and is also an educational tool, said Randall Rothenberg, CEO of IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau).

No Respite From Ads

Facebook will control more than 20 percent of the worldwide digital ad market this year, which will exceed US$67 billion, according to eMarketer.

That’s not likely to be affected by the Off-Facebook Activity tool, which “seems designed to prevent any major shift in [Facebook’s business model] or the revenue stream,” said Nicole France, principal analyst at Constellation Research.

The only difference Facebook members will see after activating Off-Facebook Activity is that the ads they receive will be less targeted, Egan and Baser noted. They will still see the same number of ads.

Facebook will continue to use the data it gets about members, but that data will not be linked to individuals.

“Many apps and websites are free because they’re supported by online advertising,” Egan and Baser pointed out, “and to reach people who are more likely to care about what they are selling, businesses often share data about people’s interactions on their websites with ad platforms and other services. This is how much of the Internet works.”

Several months into the development of the feature, “people asked for a way to disconnect future online activity from individual businesses — not just all at once,” the executives wrote.”We also heard from privacy experts that it was important to be able to reconnect a specific app or website while keeping other future activity turned off.”

This is in line with the results of an online survey YouGov conducted this spring. Nearly 1,400 of the 2,500-plus adult American participants had installed an ad blocker on their digital devices.

Some consumers, dubbed “ad filterers,” accept certain ads as long as they are not intrusive, noted Ben Williams, director of advocacy at survey sponsor Eyeo, maker of Adblock Plus.

Ad blocking began “as an all-or-nothing proposition,” he said, but “ad filtering, whether accomplished through an ad blocker or even directly through the browser, is growing in popularity.”

Staying Ahead of Regulators

“The Off-Facebook Activity tool is the latest move from Facebook to become more transparent and give more control to consumers over their data,” said Jasmine Enberg, social media analyst at eMarketer.

It is “also likely an effort to stay one step ahead of regulators, in the U.S. and abroad, that are cracking down on Facebook’s ad targeting practices,” she told the E-Commerce Times.

The rollout of the new tool follows Facebook’s announcement last month that it would give users more detailed reasons for ads being shown them, as well as update Ad Preferences to tell them more about businesses providing information about them.

Data processors like Facebook “need to make sure that collection, use and disclosure are fully comprehended before they occur,” said Steve Wilson, principal analyst at Constellation Research.

“That’s privacy,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Facebook’s ad targeting practices, which long have been the focus of complaints by privacy advocates, shot to prominence last year because of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

In response, Facebook CEO Mark announced plans to build Clear History, a tool that would let members clear their browsing history. It appears Clear History has morphed into the Off-Facebook Activity feature.

Germany’s national competition regulator, the Bundeskartellamt, earlier this year ordered Facebook to stop combining user data from different sources without consumers’ consent.

Not Quite Good Enough

Off-Facebook Activity is opt-out rather than opt-in, which “puts the onus on individual users to go through every app and website and try to make an informed decision about what they want to keep and what they don’t,” Constellation’s France told the E-Commerce Times.

“This flies in the face of any assertions that Facebook is built on user privacy,” she said.

“Instead, this seems to me like a not-so-subtle way of building in enough friction to assure that most people never bother to turn off any data sharing,” France contended. “Just as the vast majority of users never bother to customize, say, the look and feel of their email inbox, the majority of Facebook users are unlikely to bother with something that requires this much effort.”

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