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Facebook unveils new tools to control how websites share your data for ad-targeting

Posted on: September 27, 2019, in Blog

Last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company would be creating a “Clear History” feature that deletes the data that third-party websites and apps share with Facebook. Today, the company is actually launching that feature in select geographies.

It’s gotten a new name in the meantime: Off-Facebook Activity. David Baser, the director of product management leading Facebook’s privacy and data use team, told me the name should make it clear to everyone “exactly what kind of data” is being revealed here.

In a demo video, Baser showed me how a user could bring up a list of everyone sending data to Facebook, and then tap on a specific app or website to learn what data is being shared. If you decide that you don’t like this data-sharing, you can block it, either on a website and app level, or across-the-board.

Facebook has of course been facing greater scrutiny over data-sharing over the past couple of years, thanks to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This, along with concerns about misinformation spreading on the platform, has led the company to launch a number of new transparency tools around advertising and content.

In this case, Facebook isn’t deleting the data that a third party might have collected about your behavior. Instead, it’s removing the connection between that data and your personal information on Facebook (any old data associated with an account is deleted, as well).

Facebook tries to make ad targeting explanations more useful

Baser said that disconnecting your off-Facebook activity will have the immediate effect of logging you out of any website or app where you used your Facebook login. More broadly, he argued that maintaining this connection benefits both consumers and businesses, because it leads to more relevant advertising — if you were looking at a specific type of shoe on a retailer’s website, Facebook could then show you ads for those shoes.

Still, Baser said, “We at Facebook want people to know this is happening.” So it’s not hiding these options away deep within a hidden menu, but making them accessible from the main settings page.

He also suggested that no other company has tried to create this kind of “comprehensive surface” for letting users control their data, so Facebook wanted to figure out the right approach that wouldn’t overwhelm or confuse users. For example, he said, “Every single aspect of this product follows the principle of progressive disclosure” — so you get with a high-level overview at first, but can see more information as you move deeper into the tools.

Facebook says it worked with privacy experts to develop this feature — and behind the scenes, it had to change the way it stores this data to make it viewable and controllable by users.

I asked about whether Facebook might eventually add tools to control certain types of data, like purchase history or location data, but Baser said the company found that “very few people understood the data enough” to want something like that.

“I agree with your instinct, but that’s not the feedback we got,” he said, adding that if there’s significant user demand, “Of course, we’d consider it.”

The Off-Facebook Activity tool is rolling out initially in Ireland, South Korea and Spain before expanding to additional countries.

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