Facebook users will soon be able to clear their web browsing history. Before taking the stage for Facebook’s annual F8 conference, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the new feature, appropriately named ‘Clear History’. “In your web browser, you have a simple way to clear your cookies and history. The idea is a lot of sites need cookies to work, but you should still be able to flush your history whenever you want,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post. “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.”
Facebook collects a lot of data from its users regardless of whether they are logged in or not. One of the most important data sets the company collects is a user’s browsing history — the list of websites and apps that they visit even when they are not on Facebook. The company gathers this data from websites and apps that use Facebook’s ads, plugins and analytics tools, which send browsing data back to the social media platform. So far there hasn’t been a way to clear or even access this data from Facebook but third parties tools do exist that limit the amount of such data Facebook can collect from users. The ‘Clear History’ tool will also have a feature that will enable users to opt out of browsing data collection altogether, Zuckerberg announced.
One caveat though is that a user’s browsing data could still be retained in an anonymous, aggregated set for companies that use Facebook for analytics purposes, but it wouldn’t be tied to their profile or used for targeting, Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer, Erin Egan clarified in a separate post. This opt-out option is only available to Facebook users and not non-users whose personal data Facebook also collects, we have written about these “Shadow Profiles” in detail here.
How will it work?
Once the update is rolled out users will be able to see information about the apps and websites they have interacted with and they will be able to clear this information from their account. They will also have the option to turn off this information from being collected and linked to their account.
But the company wants to make it clear that having information about user’s activity and browsing preferences are apparently critical to providing a good end-user experience. Zuckerberg writes in his post. “To be clear, when you clear your cookies in your browser, it can make parts of your experience worse. You may have to sign back into every website, and you may have to reconfigure things. The same will be true here.” The CEO flatly warns that “your Facebook won’t be as good while it relearns your preferences.” So while it does plan to offer this feature, Facebook is going to do its best to discourage you from using it.
Clear History feature will take time
While the new feature seems extremely useful, Facebook claims it’s going to take “a few months” to build and release Clear History. Egan wrote in her post that Facebook will work with privacy advocates, academics, policymakers and regulators to get their input on the company’s approach, including how they plan to remove identifying information and the rare cases where they need information for security purposes. “We’ve already started a series of roundtables in cities around the world, and heard specific demands for controls like these at a session we held at our headquarters two weeks ago. We’re looking forward to doing more,” Egan added.
Zuckerberg didn’t understand how Facebook used data
One of the most fascinating aspects of the ‘Clear History’ announcement is that it came about from Zuckerberg’s supposed ignorance about his company’s data collection practices. In an interview with Wired, Zuckerberg said this improvement was an indirect product of his ten hours in the congressional hot seat last month. “One of my takeaways was that I actually felt like I didn’t understand all the details [on things like] how we were using external data on our ad system, and I wasn’t OK with that,” he told Wired. “On the plane ride back, I scheduled a meeting. I was like, ‘I’m going to sit down with this team and learn exactly all this stuff that I didn’t know.’ ” The result of this remedial education was offering an option for users to cut that information loose. Zuckerberg compared this feature to cleaning the cookies out of one’s browser, a form of digital hygiene that he occasionally practices himself.