Facebook rolls out tool to block off-Facebook data gathering

/ CBS/AP

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Facebook users could soon see fewer familiar ads following them around the internet—but they'd have to work for it.

The company on Tuesday said it is launching a long-promised tool that lets you block the social network from gathering information about you on outside websites and apps. This includes the Facebook pixel, a piece of code that businesses can use to track activity on their sites by people who have a Facebook account, and Facebook login.

The company said it is adding a section where you can see the outside activity it tracks via its "like" buttons and other means. Users will be able to choose to turn off the tracking; otherwise, tracking will continue the same way it has been.

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Formerly known as "clear history," the tool will now go by the somewhat awkward name "off-Facebook activity." The feature will be available in South Korea, Ireland and Spain on Tuesday, consistent with Facebook's tendency to launch features in smaller markets first. The company did not give a timeline for when it might expand it to the U.S. and other countries, only that it will be in "coming months."

It pays to target

Blocking the tracking could mean fewer ads that seem familiar — for example, for a pair of shoes someone decided not to buy, or a nonprofit they donated money to. But it won't change the actual number of ads a person will see on Facebook.

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Boosting its privacy protections could be an attempt to stay one step ahead of regulators and pre-empt further punishment, some people said. But it's a delicate dance, as Facebook still depends on highly targeted advertising for nearly all of its revenue.

"We do think this could have an impact on our revenue," said Stephanie Max, product manager at Facebook, adding that this will depend on how people will use the tool. But she added that giving people "transparency and control" is important.

It's unclear how popular the tool will be. Facebook's privacy flubs have earned the company plenty of bad press but relatively little in the way of financial penalties.

Last year, immediately after revelations broke that Facebook allowed the data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica to access user data, the company lost several million users in Europe and North America. But one year later, it has regained those users—and its revenue from advertising is higher than ever. The company recently paid a $5 billion fine to the U.S. government in connection with the data leak, which amounts to about a month's worth of income.

Journalist attempts to hide personal data from big tech

The requirement that users actively opt out of being tracked makes it less likely people will use the option, said eMarketer social media analyst Jasmine Enberg.

"As we've seen in the past, there is a disconnect between people who say they care about privacy and those who actually do something about it," Enberg said via email. "If not enough people use the tool, it's unlikely that it will have a material impact on Facebook's bottom line."

A history of privacy lapses

Facebook faces increasing governmental scrutiny over its privacy practices, including a record $5 billion fine from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for mishandling user data.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the "clear history" feature more than a year ago. The company said building it has been a complicated technical process, which is also the reason for the slow, gradual rollout. Facebook said it sought input from users, privacy experts and policymakers along the way, which led to some changes. For instance, users will be able to disconnect their activity from a specific websites or apps, or reconnect to a specific site while keeping other future tracking turned off.

Off-Facebook activity is one of many pieces of information that Facebook uses to target ads to people. The changes announced today won't affect how users' actions on Facebook are used to show ads. It also won't change the metrics Facebook sends back to advertisers to tell them how well their ads work.

First published on August 20, 2019 / 5:05 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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