Facebook’s Clear History Tool, Now Called Off-Facebook Activity, Is Finally Rolling Out

Its gradual introduction will begin in Ireland, South Korea and Spain

People will be able to see and control the data that other apps and websites share with Facebook Facebook
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The Clear History tool that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially discussed at F8 in May 2018 is finally rolling out in a few countries (not the U.S.) and under a new name, Off-Facebook Activity.

Chief product officer, policy Erin Egan and director of product management David Baser said in a Newsroom post Tuesday that Off-Facebook Activity will gradually roll out in Ireland, South Korea and Spain, in order to ensure that the tool is working reliably, with plans to make it available globally over the coming months.

Egan and Baser provided the following example: “Imagine a clothing website wants to show ads to people who are interested in a new style of shoes. They can send Facebook information saying someone on a particular device looked at those shoes. If that device information matches someone’s Facebook account, we can show ads about those shoes to that person.”

With the new Off-Facebook Activity tool, people will be able to see and control the data that other applications and websites share with the social network via online business tools such as the Facebook pixel or Facebook Login.

Egan and Baser cautioned that people using the tool may see apps or websites they don’t recognize, offering as an example a website that a friend looked up on their device, or shared computers at home.

All of that information can be disconnected from Facebook, covering what has already been shared and halting any future sharing, and this can be done for all activity off the social network or just for specific apps and sites.

When a user clears Off-Facebook Activity, their identifying information is removed from the data sent to the social network by apps and websites, so Facebook will not know which apps and websites they visited or used, or what they did on those properties.

None of the data will be used to target those users on Facebook, Instagram or Messenger. Egan and Baser wrote, “We expect that this could have some impact on our business, but we believe giving people control over their data is more important.”

Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post last May prior to F8, “In your web browser, you have a simple way to clear your cookies and history. The idea is that a lot of sites need cookies to work, but you should still be able to flush your history whenever you want. We’re building a version of this for Facebook, too. It will be a simple control to clear your browsing history on Facebook—what you’ve clicked on, websites you’ve visited and so on.”

Nearly one year later, this past May, the social network began preparing brands for the tool’s eventual debut, saying in a blog post that when people elect to use Clear History, the data they remove can no longer be used for targeting, which will obviously impact its targeting options, including the custom audiences Facebook generates based on the websites and apps people visit, and it said, “Businesses should keep this in mind when developing strategies for these kinds of campaigns in the second half of the year and beyond.”

Egan and Baser discussed the lengthy development of the Off-Facebook Activity tool, pointing out that there was no existing template to follow, and saying that Facebook’s engineering teams redesigned its systems and built a new way to process information, with input from users, privacy advocates, policymakers, advertisers and industry groups.

Among the changes that were made during the development process: People asked for a way to disconnect future online activity from individual businesses, but not all at once; and privacy experts suggested the ability to reconnect a specific app or website while keeping other future activity turned off.

Egan and Baser wrote, “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.”

They added, “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.”

Consumer goods giant Unilever has expressed displeasure with Facebook’s privacy policies in the past, with then-chief marketing officer Keith Weed taking the company and other social platforms to task during a keynote speech at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Annual Leadership Meeting in Palm Desert, Calif., last February.

Unilever executive vice president of global media Luis Di Como shed a positive light on Tuesday’s news, saying in the Newsroom post, “As part of Unilever’s Responsibility Framework, we are committed to creating a better digital ecosystem working with our partners. The Off-Facebook Activity tool aims to provide people with greater transparency and control over their own data, helping to improve their online experience. We support this step from Facebook and encourage them and all industry players to continue in the journey to build back trust in the advertising ecosystem.”

Facebook provided a detailed look at the technical challenges behind developing Off-Facebook Activity in a separate blog post.

david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.