Why Off-Facebook doesn’t solve the data privacy problem

‘We need to see greater personal responsibility and transparency on both sides of the virtual fence.’
21 August 2019

After browsing your favorite online stores, have you ever opened your Facebook feed to discover the same items appearing in the form of ads on your timeline? It can conjure up an uncomfortable feeling that Facebook is becoming a little too creepy and intrusive for comfort.

At its F8 developer’s conference last year, Facebook promised greater transparency by announcing a ‘Clear History’ feature. 

In what many perceived to be a plea for a few positive headlines in the face of a privacy uproar, Zuckerberg declared: “You’ll be able to see information about the apps and websites you’ve interacted with, and you’ll be able to clear this information from your account.” 

Users would even be able to turn off having this information stored within their account, he said.

Off-Facebook activity

Since that 2018 announcement, as the privacy debate continues, the ‘Clear History’ label has now been launched as the not so sexy ‘Off-Facebook Activity.’ 

The feature enables users to see and control the data that apps and websites capture about them and share with Facebook, so they can target you with more relevant advertising. 

While users can “disconnect” data from their account, however, Facebook will not delete it from its vaults. 

The tool is launching in smaller markets in South Korea, Ireland, and Spain. But other countries, such as the US and Australia, will have to wait until the ‘coming months’ before they can access the feature.

Although there is an increasing awareness around protecting privacy, many users have a history of not doing much about it, and seldom tweak their Facebook privacy settings. There is an argument that this is a cynical move to stay one step ahead of the regulators that have Facebook in their sights. 

What’s the impact on businesses and advertising?

Even if a global community of Facebook users adopts the new tool to prevent the social network from tracking their activity across other apps and websites, very little will change.

Facebook will continue to monitor the activity of users on its platform, and advertisers will continue to pay for the privilege of reaching their target audience.

The move is arguably sending a message to regulators rather than users or advertisers. Facebook has found a way to showcase to the world that it is serious about giving people the tools to control their data. All without harming its lucrative business model.

How the off-Facebook activity tool will impact Facebook’s ad business will depend entirely on consumer adoption. Just how many people will dare to look under their hood at their Facebook settings and turn on the feature remains to be seen. But if you do switch it on, will your Facebook experience suffer?

By blocking the tracking of your browsing habits outside of Facebook, you will still see the same number of ads. But you will receive more generic advertising that is less relevant to you as a user if most of your browsing is outside of the Facebook platform. Once again, personalization enters the privacy argument.

Do consumers actually want personalized ads?

Facebook insists it needs to track your habits to provide you with a unique experience. Zuckerberg warned that when you clear cookies from your web browsers, the experience can suffer, and every website will need you to sign in again. He hinted that a similar negative experience could occur while Facebook relearns your preferences.

The social media giant claims to be a digital town square where you can connect with family and friends. But make no mistake; Facebook is an advertising company with ad revenue of US$16.6 billion last year. If something is free, you’re not a customer, you’re the product. For these reasons alone, personalized ads are going nowhere.

Have you met anyone that has passionately spoken about how they yearn for more personalized ads? I suspect not. MarTech conferences often turn halls into giant echo chambers where attendees convince each other that consumers want more personalized ads.

Although the data might suggest that relevant ads increase engagement and purchasing rates, the reality is consumers want fewer ads and tracking of their online activities.

According to a report by RSA security, there is a growing disconnect between businesses and their consumers. The report revealed that only 17 percent of those surveyed viewed tailored advertisements as ethical. Only 24 percent believe personalization on tailored newsfeeds is ethical.

We are living in an age of one-click checkouts and the removal of friction points. But there is also an increasing frustration around the number of websites asking users to select which cookies they will allow. Most people would want everything off by default and enjoy a seamless web browsing experience. Something clearly has to change.

Is the privacy debate bigger than Facebook?

The inconvenient truth is that very little has changed over the years.

Retailers have always tracked the shopping habits of their consumers. For example, loyalty cards were always the preferred method of tracking buying patterns and were much more about the supermarket than the consumers. 

As these tracking methods have evolved, we have just become more aware of what goes on behind the curtain.

Privacy is a much more complicated subject than many realize. On one hand, consumers have become accustomed to personalization across Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify. But our rising expectations demand more of these experiences as standard. 

When businesses attempt to create these experiences, they run the risk of unwittingly crossing the fine line into creepy territory.

Responsibility over data sharing

We need to see greater personal responsibility and transparency on both sides of the virtual fence. As consumers, we need to stop clicking agree on all those privacy or lengthy terms and conditions forms.

It will be interesting to see if users will adopt the arrival of privacy features such as ‘Off Facebook’ or if they will revert to their desire for convenience and experience.

Equally, businesses need to be completely transparent about how much data they are capturing and what they intend to do with it. The line between online and offline is beginning to disappear. But many of the rules around decency have changed very little.

Businesses now need to ask themselves what questions they would be comfortable asking their customers in a face-to-face environment. Most of us would be happy handing over personal information to our favorite airline, sports team, store, or concert venue if it enhanced our future experiences.

By contrast, would you direct your employees to ask strangers personal questions as they walk around a shopping mall? 

As a consumer, how would you feel about an unknown shopkeeper randomly stopping you and asking you where you live, your date of birth, and how much you earn? It would quickly feel intrusive and creepy.

These same values need to be respected online too if businesses are serious about getting the balance right. Sure, privacy is complicated. But upon closer inspection, it could be made much easier by tackling the disconnect between consumers and businesses with good old-fashioned common sense.