Understanding Facebook's "Clear History" Tool

A set of privacy options...

Facebook’s Clear History tool is has just gone live in a limited number of countries and will be rolling out to the rest over the next few months. What does that mean for Facebook users? Perhaps less than the name suggests.

In May 2018 CEO Mark Zuckerberg--fresh from grilling by Congress over privacy matters—announced that Facebook was developing a tool that would allow users to clear history just like they can clear it on their browser. That seems pretty straightforward, but as usual, there are catches.

A user’s browser does save browsing history and sometimes that’s helpful to the user. There are, however, good reasons for deleting it including saving storage space. Deleting history for each browser is different but here is one of many good web articles on how to do it. So far, that’s pretty simple. Just remember that it’s not the same thing as clearing cookies that track your visits to websites. I discussed cookies and ways to deal with them several months ago.

Facebook’s new “tool” is actually a set of privacy options is based on the fact that Facebook tracks the activities of users both on and off the Facebook platform. Some experts believe that tracking occurs even when users are signed out. Data is obtained from ads placed on Facebook, ads distributed to many sites by Facebook’s advertising network and data from apps and websites that share data with Facebook.

The stated use of the data is to target advertising. Facebook offers many targeting options for both Facebook and network ads. More troubling, we have known since the Cambridge Analytica revelation that Facebook shares data with third parties to use in developing their own advertising targeting methods. The use of Facebook data is both broad in scope and deep in the amount of data it has on individual users. Advertising is the chief source of Facebook’s revenue.

The tool that is currently being rolled out will allow users to do three things. I’m using Facebook’s own words here because they are crucial to understanding. Facebook Offline Activity will allow the user to:

  • See a summary of the information other apps and websites have sent Facebook through our online business tools, like Facebook Pixel or Facebook Login;
  • Disconnect this information from your account if you want to; and
  • Choose to disconnect future off-Facebook activity from your account. You can do this for all of your off-Facebook activity, or just for specific apps and websites.

The news release link also shows images of how the Off-Line Activity screens will look.

The operative word is “disconnect.” Facebook will not delete the user’s history, nor will it stop collecting it. The Clear History option will separate the data from the user’s record, retaining it as anonymous data. Under the Future Of-Facebook Activity option data will still be collected and it will not be anonymized immediately. Again in Facebook’s own words, “Your future off-Facebook activity will be disconnected within 48 hours from when it's received. During this time it may be used for measurement purposes and to make improvements to our ads systems.”

As indicated by a banner on this link, the Off-Line Activity commands are not yet available in the US. It is available in Ireland, South Korea and Spain and will be rolling out to other countries over the next few months. That is typical because it allows the platform ensure that it works on the various country versions. Expect the news media to publicize it when the tool is available in the US. Just remember that the actual impact on the user may be considerably less than anticipated.

If you want to know more about Facebook’s logic, here is a reasonably non-technical post. It doesn’t give the blunt bottom line however. Facebook has to have this data to let their advertisers know precisely how well their advertising is working—the feature that distinguishes internet advertising from traditional media advertising. Advertisers care about the individual so they can “retarget,” that is send you ads for products you have already looked for. They also care very much about whether it is 10 different people seeing their ad or one person coming back 10 times. That’s done by a unique identifier number but it still feels intrusive to many people.

As I’ve said before, that’s the inherent conundrum of the internet. Users like free content. The only way to provide free content is advertising, and on the internet advertising requires data. That is not only the inherent conundrum, it is Facebook’s business model and why it finds it so hard to reconcile demands for privacy with doing its business.

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