Facebook Lets Users Control Data Shared By Apps And Websites

Facebook’s latest commitment to user privacy is underwhelming to say the least

statement released yesterday, Facebook announced a new way for social media users to view and control their off-Facebook activity.

The new Off-Facebook Activity tool will let people see a summary of the apps and websites that send Facebook information about things they are looking at online, and clear this information from their account if they want to.

The service will be available to people in Ireland, South Korea and Spain to begin with, before being rolled out across the board in the next few months.

Why should you use this tool?

If you’ve ever felt like Facebook is spying on you or reading your mind, that’s probably because it is keeping very close tabs on what you’re doing when you surf the web.

If you weren’t already aware, many apps and websites are free because they’re supported by online advertising. We’ve all looked at products online before without checking out straight away — perhaps you were just fantasising about a three week all inclusive holiday to Mexico, or you were waiting until payday to get those new trainers.

Either way, to ensure you return to the site and buy their product in the end, retailers send information to Facebook saying that you looked at an item on their website. Facebook uses this information to target you with ads to encourage you to return to the site and make a purchase. In doing so, Facebook makes money.

Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

What will the new Off-Facebook Activity tool do?

The tool will let users see a summary of the information that apps and websites have sent through online business tools, like Facebook Pixel or Facebook Login.

Users will be able to disconnect this information from their account if they want, as well as disconnect future off-Facebook activity from their account either by website, or across the board. You can also opt back in (although why you would want to do this is beyond me).

This will mean that Facebook won’t know what websites you visited or what you did on the site, and they won’t be able to use the data you disconnect to place targeted ads on your Facebook, Instagram or Messenger feeds.

The tool joins other updates such as “Why am I seeing this ad?” and “Why am I seeing this post?” to allow users to have a greater degree of control over the content they see on their Facebook feeds.

Why are Facebook launching this tool?

The company said in the statement: “We expect this could have some impact on our business, but we believe giving people control over their data is more important.”

Which sounds admirable and all, with an evident commitment to user privacy over profit, but Facebook kind of don’t have a choice at this point.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw the Federal Trade Commission fine the tech company $5 million, as well as the more recent admission that Facebook employed third party humans to transcribe audio sent over Messenger, Facebook is under the spotlight when it comes to privacy practices.

The technology giant is clearly trying to clean up its act, evinced by the statement from Erin Egan, Chief Privacy Officer, Policy, and David Baser, Director of Product Management that said: “This feature marks a new level of transparency and control, and we’ll keep improving. We welcome conversations with privacy experts, policymakers and other companies about how to continue building tools like this.”

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

How significant is this commitment to user privacy?

Facebook’s promise of ‘a new level of transparency and control’ falls a bit flat though, because their latest tool is opt-out rather than opt-in, which means that the majority of social media users will continue using the web with no idea of how their data is collected, stored, and monetised.

Furthermore, the only ads it stops users from seeing are ones from retailers who have paid to target leads (people who have already landed on their sites).

There is nothing to stop these retailers booking paid advertisements and targeting their key demographic anyway. Facebook still makes money by offering companies ‘Facebook Core Audiences’ as part of its advertising programme, which helps show ads to people based on age, location or hobbies. In other words, Facebook are still making money from ads which rely on users’ personal data.

Until Facebook admits that it can’t operate without exploiting its users’ profile data, consider me less than impressed by their latest ‘who’s-a-good-boy’ act.

What do you think of the new privacy commitments from Facebook? Are you overwhelmed, or underwhelmed?

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