At the height of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in May 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg floated a very un-Facebook-like idea. He said the company was building a “clear history” feature that would let users “flush” their browsing data from Facebook, much like you can erase it from your web browser. He added that the feature would start with the data that Facebook collects from “websites and apps that use Facebook’s ads and analytics tools.”
The concept is something privacy advocates have long called for. Yet Zuckerberg’s apparent embrace of it came as a surprise. That’s because it runs counter to Facebook’s long history of agglomerating as much user data as it can, from wherever it can find it.
So the trial balloon immediately raised three questions: 1) Really? 2) When? And 3) Really??
We now have an answer to at least the first two of those questions—and a strong hint as to the third. The answers are: 1) Yes, really. 2) This year. And 3) Well… probably really. Mostly.
Until Tuesday, the “clear history” idea was starting to look like it might have been an empty promise, made by Zuckerberg under duress and quietly scuttled after the fuss died down. After initially saying the feature would take a few months to build, Facebook told the tech site Recode in December that it was “taking longer than we initially had thought,” citing technical obstacles. It’s an excuse that might hold more water if it didn’t come from a company that employs thousands of the world’s most skilled software developers.
By last week, the press was losing patience. BuzzFeed’s Ryan Mac wrote a story headlined, “Mark Zuckerberg promised a clear history tool almost a year ago. Where is it?” Mac’s reporting suggested that the project was a fantasy at the time it was proposed, and may have never really gotten off the ground. “Mark just wanted to score some points,” one anonymous company source said.
On Tuesday, however, Facebook gave a strong indication that “clear history” really is coming—and it attached a more credible timetable. Specifically, Chief Financial Officer David Werner told an audience of bankers, investors, and industry insiders at a Morgan Stanley conference that the feature is coming later this year—and that it would likely hurt Facebook’s targeted advertising business. “”Broadly, [clear history is] going to give us some headwinds in terms of being able to target as effectively as before,” Wehner said, per CNBC.
The context is noteworthy, because Wehner wasn’t glad-handing world leaders at Davos or trying to smooth over a controversy in the media. He was warning a bunch of moneybags to expect a punch in the pocketbook. These are people who have more of a vested interest in advertising-industry profits than they have in Facebook’s public image or its users’ privacy. So if it weren’t really happening, Wehner would have little incentive to bring it up.
More importantly, the fact that Facebook’s CFO is talking about the feature in terms of “headwinds” to its business suggests that it’s not mere window-dressing. The implication of my third question above—“Really??”—is that Facebook might indeed release a feature called “clear history,” yet design it in such a way that it’s either ineffectual or unlikely to be broadly used.
Facebook and other tech platforms specialize in manipulating users’ behavior via the design of their products. So they know how to bury a feature when they don’t want many people to avail themselves of it. Such a move allows them to mollify privacy critics while maintaining the status quo for the vast majority of users who aren’t aware they can opt out.
That still might turn out to be the case with “clear history.” But Wehner’s statement makes it seem more likely that this is a feature Facebook expects people to actually use—perhaps because they’ll actually be able to find it. Otherwise, the effect on its ad business would be negligible.
Even so, important questions remain about the feature’s design and function. One question I asked Facebook was: Will the data actually be deleted, or just cleared in some way that leaves it stored on Facebook’s servers? The answer from a Facebook spokesperson suggested it won’t be deleted, per se, though it at least reaffirmed that the data will no longer be used for ad targeting:
From a targeting and optimization perspective, Clear History will be similar to our existing partner data control in Ads Preferences—the data a person clears will not be used to personalize their ads. We’ll share more guidance and details on impact for advertisers as we get closer to the launch.
That would be in keeping with Facebook’s early statements about the feature. In a May 2018 blog post, the company said it would “remove identifying information so a history of the websites and apps you’ve used won’t be associated with your account.” In other words, the data will still exist, it just won’t be attached to you anymore. Deleting would be a stronger step, but short of that, this seems like a relatively strong form of anonymization, if implemented carefully.
Here’s hoping Wehner is right and the feature hurts Facebook’s ad revenues. Not because Facebook losing out on some profits is a good thing in itself—but because it would mean that the feature is actually doing what Facebook promised it would.