The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Facebook’s ‘Clear History’ tool arrives with ambiguous data privacy controls

But the new tool will not allow users to delete the information.

(Jenny Kane/AP)

Facebook on Tuesday unveiled its long-awaited feature allowing users to limit businesses, apps and other groups that collect data about them on the Web and pass that information to the tech giant — a move that may disappoint people who thought they would be able to delete that information from Facebook in full.

The social media giant said the new tools to control “Off-Facebook Activity” are designed to “shed more light” on a form of online tracking — around shopping habits, web-browsing histories and other activities — that determines some of the ads people see on Facebook. Users now can choose to remove this history from their accounts and turn off some or all of that tracking in the future.

The tools are being rolled out in Spain, Ireland and South Korea beginning Tuesday, with additional availability in the coming months, company officials said.

The feature comes more than a year after Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg first pledged to build a function called “Clear History” that he said would work much the same way a browser allows people to see and delete information about the sites they visited. The goal had been to empower users to “flush your history whenever you want,” he said in May 2018, admitting the company hadn’t been clear about all the ways it learns about its users.

But the implementation of those controls doesn’t exactly flush data, as Zuckerberg had promised. Instead, it disconnects information from being identified to a specific user, and it isn’t deleted outright. Facebook officials previously said users could “delete this information from your account,” a pledge that might have led users to believe Facebook would remove it entirely.

The controls also won’t prevent Facebook from reporting back to another business whenever users generally purchase their product after seeing an ad targeted to them — one of the most attractive elements of the Facebook platform, underpinning its lucrative success, in the eyes of companies that want to reach specific audiences and measure the impact of their ads.

Go ahead and #DeleteFacebook. But here's the change we really need.

Facebook’s new tool will probably shine a perhaps uncomfortable light on the sheer volume of data it amasses — often without users’ full knowledge and even involving companies or apps with which they’ve had limited interactions.

“We expect this could have some impact on our business,” said Erin Egan, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, “but we believe giving people more control over their data is more important.”

Facebook’s announcement follows the conclusion of a 16-month investigation by the U.S. government into the tech giant’s privacy practices. The probe originated out of Facebook’s alleged misstatements about how it collects, taps and shares information, chiefly through its entanglement with Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy that improperly accessed millions of users’ personal data. Agency officials also explored the ways in which device manufacturers and app makers had access to Facebook data perhaps without users’ full awareness.

Facebook will have to pay a record-breaking fine for violating users’ privacy. But the FTC wanted more.

The company's resulting settlement with the Federal Trade Commission ultimately yielded a $5 billion fine — a record for a privacy violation — along with two decades of heightened oversight from the company's government regulators. Future violations could carry additional fines and other penalties for Facebook.

The privacy scandals that prompted the FTC probe catalyzed a broad rethinking across Facebook about the data it makes available to third-party apps and the controls available to users. Zuckerberg cited those challenges when he unveiled the tool formerly known as “Clear History” during the F8 developer conference in 2018.

“It’s something privacy advocates have been asking for — and we will work with them to make sure we get it right,” he said in a note at the time.

Using the new tools, users can see every time a business passes information back to Facebook for advertising purposes and disconnect that data from their account. Facebook said it had built tools that prevent the tech giant from re-identifying those users later.

The new tools don’t change some of Facebook’s other mechanisms for targeting users with ads, including features that allow a business to reach consumers by uploading their email addresses or phone numbers.

Egan on Tuesday pointed to some reasons that people could see companies or apps listed that they don’t recognize. It could be, for example, that friends or family members used their smartphone to look at a Web page that later shared data with Facebook, she said in a blog post.

The complexity of the new system — and the previous statements from Facebook executives — threatens to saddle the company with fresh criticism that it did not keep its previous promises.

“Everyone might have had a different mental interpretation … because it doesn’t exist elsewhere,” said Stephanie Max, a product manager at Facebook.