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What Should We Expect When Facebook Releases Their ‘Clear History’ Privacy Tool?

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How comprehensive will a Clear History feature on Facebook be, given how essential that data is to its success?

In May 2018, an embattled Mark Zuckerberg announced before an audience at the company’s F8 Conference a forthcoming “Clear History” tool. Designed to allow users to remove data pulled by third-party applications and later applied to ad targeting, it was viewed at once as a lip service response to the still-fresh Cambridge Analytica scandal and a welcome feature for those concerned about the security of their data.

Up until very recently, the former notion has reigned.

But last week at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media, and Telecom conference, Facebook CFO David Wehner brought up the tool again—this time to an audience that would be impacted considerably by the existence of such a tool: companies who profit from the ad data.

“A tool like Clear History could have a substantial impact on Facebook’s ability to target ads and generate revenue if enough users actively remove the information collected about their online activity,” The Verge’s Nick Statt correctly points out. And, as Slate agreed, by bringing the tool up in the environment where he did, Wehner showed that this feature is certifiably on its way. “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.”

Wehner was vague about when the tool would arrive, saying only that it’d debut “later this year,” with Buzzfeed reporting that testing would begin this spring. And while it seems more clear that such a feature will make its debut before the year ends, questions still remain around its capability and fidelity.

Buzzfeed’s reporting on Clear History largely aimed to expose the gap between Facebook’s reported intentions for the tool, and its actual desire to protect user privacy. “[The company’s] communications around privacy have historically been opportunistic and protectionist, deployed to cover up for the last transgression from its ‘move fast and break things’ ideology,” they wrote after speaking with several former employees and critics. As such, there is already skepticism about what the tool will actually do for users.

The Center for Democracy and Technology’s Natasha Duarte notes, “it’s still unclear what the tool will allow users to delete,” recognizing that the ability to delete the information that enables targeting isn’t the same as erasing the impact that the information has had on the site algorithm. And Slate’s Will Oremus wonders if users will even be able to find the feature once it debuts:

“Facebook and other tech platforms specialize in manipulating users’ behaviors 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.”

Ultimately, Facebook has to make a decision as to whether it truly wants to create a feature that offers users control over their experience, or if they just want to look as though they do. Presumably, we’ll know later this year when Clear History arrives on Facebook profiles worldwide.

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