The “clear history” button that Facebook has promised for nearly two years is finally here. Here’s where you can push it. But don’t assume it will change much about how Facebook uses your data to help power its business.
On Tuesday, Facebook rolled out what it’s now calling its “Off-Facebook Activity” tools, allowing users across the globe to control how third-party apps and websites transmit data to the platform. This means that you can see what retailers, payment apps, news sites, and other online services have been sharing info about you with Facebook for ad targeting purposes, and also erase the user data that the platform has accumulated through these third parties. I found out, for example, that 977 apps and websites had shared my activity, including Venmo, Hulu, and—yep—Slate.
Facebook has come under fire in the past for hoovering up sensitive user information from apps for Ring doorbells and menstrual tracking. This new feature won’t end that practice, but it should hopefully give anyone who takes the time to use it a better sense of how digital services barter their data. “Off-Facebook Activity marks a new level of transparency and control,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post. “We’ve been working on this for a while because we had to rebuild some of our systems to make this possible.” Last year, Zuckerberg said that introducing such a feature would likely harm Facebook’s extremely lucrative ad business, since it could limit how Facebook targets users’ interests.
Facebook initially announced “Off-Facebook Activity” at a developer conference in 2018 in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and rolled out a beta version of the tool to users in South Korea, Spain, and Ireland a year later. Facebook had originally called the feature “Clear History,” but the company worried that users would mistakenly think that they were removing content that they’d posted to their pages. A judge in Texas temporarily blocked the company from launching the controls in the U.S. in August over concerns that they would allow an alleged sex trafficker to erase evidence.
You can find the controls in the Facebook app or website by navigating to the settings menu. From there, you scroll down to the section titled “Your Facebook Information” and select “Off-Facebook Activity,” which will take you to a page where you can view the apps and websites that have been sharing your info, delete the associated histories, and set limits on how this data sharing occurs in the future. There’s a “clear history” button at the top of the page that will erase all the off-Facebook data presented, and you can click on each app or website in the list to see how much data they’ve shared and stop them from doing so.
If you choose to delete all the shared data and prohibit those third parties from providing Facebook with info tied to your account, you’ll still see ads on the platform, but they’ll be less relevant to your interests—and, correspondingly, much less creepy. (If you’re wondering why the last time you searched for blenders, it then showed up in your Facebook news feed, this is why.) Facebook has likened this to clearing cookies and histories from a browser. Note, though, that Facebook can still target ads at you using other data, like contact info, though you can limit this to a certain extent with the “Ads based on data from partners” setting in Ad Controls.
The “Off-Facebook Activity” tools will still technically allow the platform to collect data from third parties, but if you set your controls to the strictest setting, that information will no longer be associated with your account. And they can only delete the info that Facebook stores—you’ll have to go directly to those third parties if you want them to get rid of the data they collected on you in the first place.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.