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Facebook May Actually Launch a Functional Privacy Tool

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More than a year ago, Mark Zuckerberg went onstage at his company’s F8 conference and announced “Clear History.” Facebook, he explained delicately, not only tracks users as they browse Facebook, but also tracks users across any website that has a Facebook tracker embedded on it. This, as it turns out, is most mainstream websites.

This data allows Facebook to gain an even more granular understanding of user interests and then show them advertisements in relation to that data. It also lets Facebook track and create profiles for people who don’t have Facebook accounts — ominously known as “shadow profiles.”

The Clear History tool still has yet to materialize. Part of the reason for the delay is that Facebook contends that disentangling this tracking data from the rest of what Facebook has on you is a complicated process — and because it was hastily conceived as a shield against bad press in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. But it’s also to Facebook’s benefit to drag its feet because, as it explained to advertisers in a blog post, it makes Facebook ads less effective.

Earlier today, tucked away on the Facebook Business blog, the company published a post innocuously titled “What Businesses Should Know About the Upcoming Tool for Managing Off-Facebook Activity.” That tool is Clear History, though you won’t find that phrase used anywhere in the notification. Included in it is an acknowledgement that — shocker — if Facebook lets users remove personal data from Facebook, Facebook’s targeting won’t be as effective. The company writes:

This feature may impact targeting. 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 [tracking] 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.

You can understand why Facebook would want to be careful about this. If the ads are less effective, people buy fewer ads, and Facebook makes less money. Advertising accounts for 99 percent of Facebook’s revenue. As the post states, Facebook has realized that being shady and obfuscatory about its advertising practices is probably not the way forward. “We encourage businesses to start thinking about ways to educate their customers about their marketing practices,” it writes.

In all honesty, I expect the effects of the Clear History feature (which I’d personally pegged as vaporware until this morning) to be minimal. Just like strong privacy controls on Facebook, it requires users to opt in, and history has shown that most users don’t know or can’t be bothered to opt in when it comes to privacy protections. Facebook isn’t going to voluntarily purge data if users don’t request that it do so. The feature still doesn’t have a concrete release date, but if Facebook is preparing advertisers for negative effects, it hopefully isn’t too far away.