Facebook launches long-awaited privacy tool to clear your browsing history

The social network is releasing the tool first in Ireland, South Korea and Spain.

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Queenie Wong was a senior writer for CNET News, focusing on social media companies including Facebook's parent company Meta, Twitter and TikTok. Before joining CNET, she worked for The Mercury News in San Jose and the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. A native of Southern California, she took her first journalism class in middle school.
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Facebook privacy tools
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Facebook privacy tools

Facebook is releasing a new privacy tool globally in the coming months. 

James Martin/CNET

Facebook said Tuesday it's rolling out a long-awaited privacy feature that will let users clear information from apps and websites they browse outside of the social network. 

The world's largest social media giant collects a trove of information about the 2.4 billion people who log into its site every month, allowing businesses to better target ads at potential customers. The feature, called Off-Facebook activity, will show you a list of apps and websites that share your online activity with the social network. It also gives you the option to disconnect this browsing activity from your Facebook account now and in the future. 


Facebook is releasing a new privacy tool globally in the coming months. 


"We won't know which websites you visited or what you did there, and we won't use any of the data you disconnect to target ads to you on Facebook, Instagram or Messenger," Erin Egan, Facebook's chief privacy officer for policy and David Baser, Facebook's director of product management, said in a blog post. "We expect this could have some impact on our business, but we believe giving people control over their data is more important."

The tool's debut, which is launching more than a year after it was announced, shows how Facebook has been trying to prove it's doing more to safeguard user privacy amid a series of scandals. The tool could also shed more light on what data Facebook collects about its users from other websites. Still, users won't be able to delete the data these apps and websites send to Facebook.

Meanwhile, Facebook continues to face more scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators including over antitrust concerns. Last month, the Federal Trade Commission hit Facebook with a record-setting $5 billion fine for its alleged privacy mishaps.  

Jasmine Enberg, an analyst with eMarketer, said in a statement that the move "is also likely an effort to stay one step ahead of regulators, in the US and abroad, that are cracking down on Facebook's ad targeting practices."

But consumers also have to go through a series of steps to access the feature so it's unclear if people will use it.

"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. "If not enough people use the tool, it's unlikely that it will have a material impact on Facebook's bottom line."

The privacy tool will be available to some users in Ireland, South Korea and Spain on Tuesday. The company declined to say exactly when it will be launched in the US but said it'll be available worldwide in the coming months for iPhone, Android and desktop users.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled the tool in May 2018 before delivering his keynote speech at the company's F8 developer conference. The announcement also came after revelations surfaced that a UK political consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, that worked on Donald Trump's presidential campaign harvested the data from up to 87 million Facebook users without their consent. 

Facebook delayed the release of the privacy tool after its announcement. The company's employees ran into a number of challenges while building the feature because the social network organizes web browsing data in a particular way. The company said it took longer to launch the feature because it was exploring other options for the privacy tool after hearing from privacy experts.

To access the tool, go to your Facebook account's settings and click on a section that says Off-Facebook Activity. There, you'll see options to view what information other apps and websites share with Facebook and clear your history, which means the social network will disconnect your account from your activity on certain apps and websites or all of them in the future.

A clothing website, for example, might send information to Facebook about someone who looked at a pair of shoes. If the person's device information matches up with a user's Facebook account, the social network can use that data to show ads to that person. 

You could be surprised by how much information Facebook has about you. Website or apps that you might not recognize could also show up in a list of apps and websites that share information with Facebook. That could includes websites or apps that your friend visited on their phone or your family browsed on a shared home computer, according to Facebook.

The average smartphone user has more than 80 apps on their phone and uses nearly 40 of them every month, according to a 2018 report by app analytics service App Annie

Originally published Aug. 20, 8 a.m. PT
Update, 10:54 a.m.: Includes analyst remarks.