Technology & Science

New Facebook tool blocks gathering of users' data from outside sites, apps

The 'off-Facebook activity' tool is first being rolled out in South Korea, Ireland and Spain and allows users to block the social network from gathering information about them on outside websites and apps.

'Off-Facebook activity' feature being rolled out initially in South Korea, Ireland and Spain

The new tool allows users to block Facebook from gathering data on outside websites and applications. The social media company says it doesn't have an immediate timeline for when the feature will be available to Canadian users. (Wilfredo Lee/The Associated Press)

Soon, you could get fewer familiar ads following you around the internet — or at least on Facebook.

Facebook is launching a long-promised tool that lets you block the social network from gathering information about you from outside websites and apps.

The company said Tuesday that it is adding a section where you can see the activity that Facebook tracks outside its service via its "like" buttons and other means. You can choose to turn off the tracking; otherwise, tracking will continue the same way it has been.

Formerly known as "clear history," the tool will now go by the somewhat awkward name "off-Facebook activity." The feature will be available in South Korea, Ireland and Spain on Tuesday, consistent with Facebook's tendency to launch features in smaller markets first. The company did not say when it might expand it to the U.S. and other countries, only that it will be in "coming months."

A representative from Facebook confirmed to CBC News that a timeline had not yet been established for the tool's rollout in Canada.

'Impact on revenue'

Blocking the tracking, which is on by default, could mean fewer ads that seem familiar — for example, for a pair of shoes you browsed but decided not to buy, or a non-profit you donated money to. It won't change the actual number of ads you'll see on Facebook.

Facebook faces increasing governmental scrutiny over its privacy practices, including a record $5-billion US fine from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for mishandling user data. Boosting its privacy protections could help the company pre-empt regulation and further punishment. But it's a delicate dance, as Facebook still depends on highly targeted advertising for nearly all of its revenue.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the "clear history" feature more than a year ago. The company said building it has been a complicated technical process, which is also the reason for the slow, gradual rollout.

Facebook said it sought input from users, privacy experts and policymakers along the way, which led to some changes. For instance, users will be able to disconnect their activity from a specific websites or apps, or reconnect to a specific site while keeping other future tracking turned off.

You'll be able to access the feature by going to your Facebook settings and scrolling down to "your Facebook information." The "off-Facebook activity" section will be there when it launches.

The tool will let you delete your past browsing history from Facebook and prevent it from keeping track of your future clicks, taps and website visits going forward. Doing so means that Facebook won't use information gleaned from apps and websites to target ads to you on Facebook, Instagram and Messenger. It also won't use such information to show you posts that Facebook thinks you might like based on your offsite activity, such as news articles shared by your friends.

"We do think this could have an impact on our revenue," said Stephanie Max, product manager at Facebook, adding that this will depend on how people will use the tool. But she added that giving people "transparency and control" is important.

Off-Facebook activity is one of many sources of information that Facebook uses to target ads to people. The changes won't affect how your actions on Facebook are used to show you ads. It also won't change the metrics Facebook sends back to advertisers to tell them how well their ads work.

With files from CBC News and CBC's Thomas Daigle


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