Will Facebook’s New ‘Clear History’ Feature Actually Help Protect Privacy?

Of course, one thing Facebook could do to make all of its handling and its explaining of its handling of personal user data simpler is … not collect any.

Of course, one thing Facebook could do to make all of its handling and its explaining of its handling of personal user data simpler is … not collect any. Carl Court/Getty Images

Facebook confirmed this week that it will release a feature later this year called “Clear History” to let users review and delete all the recorded interactions they’ve had with websites and apps stored by the social network.

The idea for the feature was first introduced last May, roughly two months after news broke of the Cambridge Analytica user data leak. At the time, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called Clear History something “privacy advocates have been asking for” and “the kind of control we think you should have.”

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On Tuesday, Facebook CFO David Wehner offered the first update on the feature since Zuckerberg’s unveiling, telling a crowd at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference 2019 in San Francisco that Clear History is coming before the end of 2019, CNBC reported. And that’s despite the fact that the feature will cause the company some “headwinds in terms of being able to target as effectively as before,” the company exec admitted.

Though Facebook has taken some steps since the unfolding of last year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal to clamp down on privacy, adding the ability for its users to control their activity information that’s being stored for advertising purposes is the largest move yet. And it’s evidenced by the fact that it could hit Facebook in the pocketbook.

But all that doesn’t mean the world’s largest social network can’t do more for the sake of its users’ privacy. Here are some examples of how Facebook could go further.

Bring All of Facebook’s European GDPR Tweaks to the US

You might be surprised to learn that there’s a slightly different, more personal data protection-friendly version of Facebook out in another part of the world that you’re not allowed to use right now.

With the passing of last year’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union, which stipulates, among other things, that online services are required to be transparent about every which way users’ data is touched, companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook have been forced to make modifications to its European-facing websites and apps. In the case of Facebook, a lot of the privacy changes made for the GDPR have been brought over to the U.S.—but not all of them.

A comparison by The Washington Post points out examples of some differences between Facebook’s new privacy approval screens that began popping up in Europe just before the GDPR went into effect and the similar version that hit U.S. phones and computers weeks later.

The GDPR-required parental consent for serving targeted ads on Facebook to children between the ages of 13 and 15 was missing from the stateside version, replaced by just an option for the teen themselves to accept or decline to be served targeted ads. And the pop-up that stipulated European users to sign off on having their faces automatically detected in photos on the site didn’t make it to every U.S. user, the the Post reported. Facebook, instead, has facial recognition turned on by default for all users in the U.S. (something that the company is being challenged on in court right now), though it can be turned off in account settings.

Under the GDPR, Facebook is also required to publicly report data beaches that affect European users within 72 hours or face penalties. Zuckerberg and Co haven’t pledged to uphold this standard in the U.S., but acknowledging a commitment to bringing that EU rule, and really all of them, to the States more literally than “in spirit would really bolster the company’s user privacy standing.

Make a More Transparent Facebook Terms of Services

The agreement that users have to accept before activating a new Facebook account is long and takes twists and turns that even some lawyers might find hard to follow. Presenting these terms as a much more transparent outline of what the social network is actually planning to do with your personal data once you click “OK” would not only give a more realistic choice between accepting or not, but it might also take some of the surprise out of what exactly gets leaked when data breaches occur.

Michelle de Mooy, the director of the Privacy & Data Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology, explained to news site Circa last year that preventing Terms of Service points from being buried in lengthy policies by adding “graphical elements” could help. And going further to keep the user informed beyond the initial TOS agreement screen could also be good, like giving live indication of exactly what is being tracked when you’re clicking around the site.

“Make it clear, for example, when you are on Facebook, there are hundreds of eyes looking at your posts,” de Mooy said.

Facebook made an attempt to simplify its Terms of Service after the Cambridge Analytica leak was made public, but that didn’t stop members of Congress from berating Zuckerberg about the still-hard-to-understand document when he appeared before them for mid-April hearings.

When Senator Lindsey Graham asked the Facebook CEO whether he agrees that “you better come up with different ways, because this ain’t working?” Zuckerberg responded with a stammering and meandering answer.

“Now we can always do better, and there are other—the services are complex, and there is more to it than just—you know, you go and you post a photo, so I—I—I agree that—that in many places we could do better.”

Hard to tell whether that means TOS changes are coming soon or not…

Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, D.C.

Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, D.C. Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Offer a Paid Subscription Version Facebook

Of course, one thing Facebook could do to make all of its handling and its explaining of its handling of personal user data simpler is … not collect any.

We know the whole reason Facebook collects such data in the first place is to use it to sell targeted ads at its users, so the company would obviously have to find some way to replace what was 89 percent of its $40 billion in revenue from 2017.

One popular suggestion has been for Facebook to charge users subscription fees for accounts.

Calculations put together by market analyst Daniel Knapp show that the social network would have to charge every North American user almost $7 a month—or about $82 a year—to gain the same amount of money that it did from the region in 2017. For context, a Spotify account runs $9.99 a month, and an Amazon Prime membership costs $12.99 a month.

Zuckerberg was asked about the paid, ad-free model for Facebook when he was before Congress. And though he said Facebook has considered “ideas like that,” he later went on to call the “ads experience” the “best one.”

“There will always be a version of Facebook that is free. It is our mission to try to help connect everyone around the world and to bring the world closer together,” he also said during the talks.

It’s like the saying goes: When the product is free, your private data is the product. Or something like that.

All in all, even though Facebook’s move to bring a Clear History feature to its users could be a good step in the right direction toward user privacy, as long as the company remains married to its ad-based model, it remains to be seen how many more steps in that direction it will be able to take.

Will Facebook’s New ‘Clear History’ Feature Actually Help Protect Privacy?