Amid ongoing criticism of its data practices, Facebook has introduced a feature that helps users see and control the data provided by other websites, and which the company uses to target advertising. Facebook has warned that the tool may hurt revenues.

The news follows an announcement a year ago that the company would introduce a “Clear History” feature, which would delete third-party site data. Now Facebook is bringing out the functionality in three initial markets, Ireland, South Korea, and Spain, before rolling out to other parts of the world in the coming months.

Off-Facebook Activity will allow users to see a summary of the information other apps and websites have provided to Facebook through tools such as the Pixel or the Facebook Login kits which are supplied by the company to other sites to help them measure usage and increase reach, often without users knowing that Facebook is involved.

Users will have the option of disconnecting all of this information from their accounts or just the information from specific sites, and future online activity. The company has produced an explainer for the tool; simply put, disconnecting off-Facebook activity will immediately log users out of any sites they have logged into with Facebook credentials.

Though that information can now be disassociated with users’ accounts, it does not mean that it will be deleted. “If you clear your off-Facebook activity, we’ll remove your identifying information from the data that apps and websites choose to send us,” wrote Erin Egan, Chief Privacy Officer, and David Baser, Director of Product management in a blog post.

“We won’t know which websites you visited or what you did there, and we won’t use any of the data you disconnect to target ads to you on Facebook, Instagram or Messenger.”

Users will not be able to initially delete certain types of data, such as purchase history or location, TechCrunch learned, because as of yet “very few people understood the data enough” to want such a feature, Baser told the site. Though it would consider it if user demand moves in that direction.

The company foresees some impact on revenue if a significant chunk of users engages with the feature, “but we believe giving people control is more important”, Egan and Baser wrote. 

Speaking on a call with reporters, Stephanie Max, a product manager at Facebook explained that “this could have an impact on our advertising, because these signals are really powerful and important in personalising people’s experience,” the FT reported.

In a note to businesses published in May, Facebook explained how the feature may affect targeting. “Targeting options powered by Facebook's business tools, such as the Facebook pixel, can’t be used to reach someone with ads. This includes Custom Audiences built from visitors to websites or apps.”

The note added that measurement capabilities should remain intact. “We don’t anticipate changes to measurement once this feature is live. We will still be able to provide accurate measurement to help businesses understand the impact of their Facebook investment.”

It’s worth remembering that off-site data is a major source of data for Facebook. In 2018, Facebook told the UK parliament that the button appeared on 8.4 million websites over a given week in April, in addition to 2.2 million instances of the invisible Facebook Pixel. Late last month, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that under GDPR rules, both Facebook and the sites embedding the functionalities would be jointly liable for obtaining consent of EU users.

Nevertheless, users will continue to see ads targeted according to the host of other information that Facebook gathers. As Wired reported in January, a Pew Research Centre study found that the vast majority of US users wasn’t aware that Facebook tracked their interests or that there was a section of the site where they could change their advertising settings.

As Mark Zuckerberg told the Senate in 2018, “Some people use it. It’s not the majority of people on Facebook.”

Sourced from TechCrunch, Facebook, Financial Times, WARC, WIRED