Facebook rolls out tool to block off-Facebook data gathering

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — 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 limit what the social network can gather about you on outside websites and apps.

The company said on 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 slightly clunkier moniker “off-Facebook activity.” The feature was launched in South Korea, Ireland and Spain on Tuesday, consistent with Facebook’s tendency to launch features in smaller markets first. The company did not give a timeline for when it might expand it to the US and other countries, only that it will be in “coming months.”

What you do off Facebook is among the many pieces of information that Facebook uses to target ads to people. Blocking the tracking could mean fewer ads that seem familiar — for example, for a pair of shoes you decided not to buy, or a non-profit you donated money to. But it won’t change the actual number of ads you’ll see on Facebook. Nor will it change how your actions on Facebook are used to show you ads.

The social media application, Facebook on Apple’s App Store. PHOTO: AP

Even if you turn off tracking, Facebook will still gather data on your off-Facebook activities. It will simply disconnect those activities from your Facebook profile. Facebook says businesses won’t know you clicked on their ad — but they’ll know that someone did. So Facebook can still tell advertisers how well their ads are performing.

Jasmine Enberg, social media analyst at research firm eMarketer, said the tool is part of Facebook’s efforts to be clearer to users on how it tracks them and likely “an effort to stay one step ahead of regulators, in the US and abroad.”

Facebook faces increasing governmental scrutiny over its privacy practices, including a record USD5 billion fine from the US Federal Trade Commission for mishandling user data. Boosting its privacy protections could help the company pre-empt regulation and further punishment.

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.