Facebook’s latest privacy overhaul – in which it has vowed to let users stop it from tracking them when they move to other sites – has been branded a “regulatory sweetener” which will not affect the social media giant’s rampant data collection practices.
The feature, called Off-Facebook Activity, has been launched to great fanfare to make sure the company is being seen to be following Mark Zuckerberg’s pledge to put privacy at the heart of Facebook’s operation.
Users can only access the tool under their settings, where they will find all the apps and websites that send information about them to Facebook, which is then used to target ads more effectively.
Users will be able to clear their history and prevent future off-app behaviour being tapped but Facebook will still collect the data, although it will be anonymised. In practice, it means users will be immediately logged out of any website or app that they used with a Facebook log-in.
In a blogpost, Facebook chief privacy officer, policy Erin Egan said: “Many apps and websites are free because they’re supported by online advertising. And to reach people who are more likely to care about what they are selling, businesses often share data about people’s interactions on their websites with ad platforms and other services.
“This is how much of the Internet works, but given that the average person with a smartphone has more than 80 apps and uses about 40 of them every month, it can be really difficult for people to keep track of who has information about them and what it’s used for.
“Off-Facebook Activity lets you see a summary of the apps and websites that send us information about your activity, and clear this information from your account if you want to. This is another way to give people more transparency and control on Facebook, along with recent updates to our Ad Library, updates to ‘Why am I seeing this ad?’ and the launch of a new feature called ‘Why am I seeing this post?’.”
But Aaron Rieke, the managing director of Upturn, a nonprofit research group that has studied Facebook’s advertising practices, said: “Facebook is essentially saying, ‘We’re just going to remove the link between your unique Facebook account and this big stream of data, but we’re going to keep that big stream of data’.”
One digital agency source added: “Basically this is just a regulatory sweetener. With the authorities breathing heavily down Facebook’s neck, it has to be seen to be doing more to protect users’ privacy. Will it make a difference to Facebook’s bottom line? Definitely not, otherwise Off-Facebook Activity would never have seen the light of day.
“Even in its darkest hour, when the Cambridge Analytica scandal was at its height, brand owners were still ploughing their adspend into Facebook. This might look like a massive change but in the grand scheme of things it is minuscule. Most users won’t bother to change their settings in the first place and, even if they do, Facebook will still be storing the information anyway, so what is all the fuss about?”
Off-Facebook Activity is rolling out initially in Ireland, South Korea and Spain, and will expand to more countries “in the coming months”.
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