Today Facebook announced the roll-out of its Off-Facebook Activity tool (initially introduced as “Clear History” nearly two years ago). The tools shows you a list of apps, websites, and businesses that Facebook knows you have visited through its business tools (including Facebook Login, Facebook’s tracking Pixel, social widgets such as Like and Share buttons, and other less visible features for developers). It also gives you options to “clear” or “disconnect” the identifiable information they have linked to your account. For more on how to use the setting, see our tutorial post.
This is a good step for Facebook to take, and we hope it pushes other companies who talk a big game about transparency to follow suit. If even Facebook can give people this level of transparency and control around a particular data stream, other adtech players should be able to get their act together.
That said, it's an incomplete measure, not least because we know that most users are unlikely to dig into and change their settings. In the U.S., for example, three-quarters of adults don’t even know that Facebook’s “ad preferences” page exists.
On top of that, this tool doesn't come close to covering all the ways Facebook collects and monetizes data about you. For starters, there's no way to opt out of Custom Audiences, one of Facebook's most powerful targeted advertising services.
As long as the burden is on users to carefully manage multiple sets of labyrinthine privacy settings, the privacy-invasive norms of targeted advertising will remain. But Facebook and other companies whose business model relies on harvesting your data know that most users are uncomfortable with the status quo, and likely would not choose to have ads targeted at them if given a real option. That’s why we need a strong federal privacy law in the U.S. and stronger interpretation of existing privacy laws globally. Without it, we’ll just be shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.