the zucc

Facebook’s Privacy Tool Launched Months Ago. Or Did It?

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Yesterday, Facebook announced an uncharacteristically useful tool, one that would transfer photos from a user’s Facebook account to their Google Photos account. Such a feature would be a demonstration of user-friendly data portability that would potentially increase competition among tech platforms and reduce lock-in; government regulators have been eyeing similar portability measures that give consumers more choice.

The catch, however, is that the tool is not immediately available. The tool “will first be available to people in Ireland, with worldwide availability planned for the first half of 2020,” according to Facebook. But who knows if that’s actually the case. Facebook does this a lot, especially with features that hurt Facebook’s dominance by weakening its users’ reliance on the service. It announces a feature that is implied to be available to everyone — plenty of outlets covered the photo-tool reveal — even though the fine print reveals that you might never actually be able to take advantage of it. (Many of these consumer-friendly tools launch in Ireland in an effort to appease E.U. antitrust regulators.)

The feature “rollout” is a staple of tech launches. A feature technically goes live, but when it will actually reach all users is left vague. Dashboards tabulating screen time rolled out last year, making their way to users over the course of weeks. Instagram’s anti-bullying tools rolled out a couple of months ago. A year ago, a feature to unsend messages in Messenger went live … in Bolivia, Colombia, Lithuania, and Poland, until eventually making its way to everyone else. This rollout tactic gives major tech platforms a way to create the illusion that they are for everyone. Tech companies get outlets to write up press releases about features going live, even if the features are not, in many cases, actually live.

Perhaps the best example of this sleight of hand is the company’s tool for managing what it calls “Off-Facebook Activity.” Facebook, through the Like buttons and tracking pixels embedded on most mainstream websites, is able to follow where you go on your web browser, even if you don’t proactively choose to share that information. This off-site activity is useful for Facebook’s ad targeting — the more Facebook knows about a user’s habits and interests, the more easily they and their ad clients can zero in on potential customers. Facebook also uses off-site activity to build what are known as “shadow profiles,” compiling the activity of users who don’t (yet) have Facebook accounts. (Facebook says that it does not build shadow profiles and that “Apps and websites that use our business tools send us activity information regardless of whether you have an account because they don’t know who is using Facebook or our other apps. If you don’t have an account with us, we can’t identify you based on this information.”)

Off-site activity is very important to Facebook, which is why it was surprising when Mark Zuckerberg announced a tool to manage this data in the spring of 2018. “Once we roll out this update, 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,” Zuckerberg wrote at the time. “You’ll even be able to turn off having this information stored with your account.”

Following a protracted development process that took more than a year from Zuckerberg’s initial announcement, Facebook announced this past August that its OFA tool was finally live! The announcement included a spiffy dedicated site for explaining the tool, a cutesy video in which a Facebook employee explains the concept to her husband, and a blog post that proclaimed “Now You Can See and Control the Data That Apps and Websites Share With Facebook.”

The use of “Now” implies that the OFA management tool is available to you, but more than three months later, the feature is still not widely available. Facebook’s announcement of the tool’s launch feels, at best, disingenuous. At worst, it’s willful deception.

I conducted an unscientific survey of colleagues and friends and found that only one person out of 13 had the feature available to them. The entry for the tool in Facebook’s help database has a prominent banner at the top informing people that “The off-Facebook activity setting isn’t currently available to you right now.” This banner appears even if one loads the page while they are not logged into Facebook, and thus is functionally a blanket statement that users should not expect to access the tool (a Facebook spokesperson said that the banner shouldn’t appear when a user is not logged in, but it still appeared for me in Firefox, Chrome, and Safari on desktop and mobile).

All of Facebook’s messaging implies that the tool exists and is readily (or imminently) available. And media coverage of the tool’s launch, for the most part, repeats these proclamations with relatively little skepticism, even in an era when Facebook is under the magnifying glass more than ever. This is not unique to Facebook really; every major platform has to gradually roll out features, and they usually announce when the process starts, not when it ends. (I’ve written plenty of blog posts that end with some variant of “The feature is rolling out now and should be available soon.”) Tech companies get all of the benefit upfront, without provably doing the work.

There are various reasons why the OFA tool might still not be widely accessible. For one thing, untangling the mess of data that Facebook has on its users is probably a complex process. Facebook has spent years hoovering up data without really planning for a day in which it would have to surrender that data in any sense. In December of 2018, David Baser, the head of Facebook’s privacy product team, told Recode that the company “did underestimate” the scope of the project and the effort it would take. (A couple months later, BuzzFeed reported that Zuckerberg announced the tool without much of a plan, conceiving of it primarily as an opportunity for good PR.)

Facebook is almost inconceivably large on a technical level. New features on large platforms are always made accessible to users in waves, rolling out gradually so that some sort of catastrophic glitch doesn’t happen. Giving more than 2 billion people a potentially buggy feature at once is not a best practice.

It’s probably worth noting that allowing users to clear their off-Facebook activity affects the company’s bottom line — and Facebook has said this explicitly. If ad targeting is less precise or effective, Facebook can’t charge as much as they do, or clients will stop buying as many ads and prices fall. Facebook warned advertisers that their campaigns might become less effective and that revealing how much data Facebook really has on its users might creep said users out. There are significant financial reasons for Facebook to slow-walk the rollout.

According to Facebook, the OFA tool is available in Ireland, South Korea, and Spain. When it will reach the rest of the world is unclear, and in an emailed statement, a spokesperson did not commit to a specific completion date, only that it would be available globally in the coming months. Most users in the U.S., the company’s most lucrative advertising market, do not currently have access to the tool. They added that the slow rollout was intentional, so that the company could iterate and respond to feedback. Rather than clearing their entire off-Facebook history, for instance, users apparently wanted to keep certain segments. Facebook supposedly plans to ramp up its expansion beginning early next year

But from an outside perspective, it appears as if Facebook has already completed its rollout. It’s not clear what steps the company will take, if any, to let users know when the feature is live for them specifically, and whether it will inform them through a traditional advertising campaign or through a mechanism in the app itself (the latter option would be far more effective in getting people to actually, you know, use it). A Facebook spokesperson said that in Ireland, the company advertised the feature both on and off the platform as it became widely available, but did not provide any specific examples.

As these types of feature rollouts stand now, a tool goes live to a small proportion, and everyone else who might want to use it is unable to do so, and then they forget about it and never use it. I have been waiting for the OFA tool for almost two years and even I had to have my memory jogged by another recent bait and switch. Once again, Facebook is partially reliant on the laziness of its users who might be unwilling to make an effort to keep checking their Settings menus.

The confusion surrounding Facebook feature launches mirrors the company’s issues with content moderation. Is Facebook a single company with a united user base? Or is it split into regions with unique needs and desires? Who gets a Facebook feature and when — not to mention why — is a special calculus known only to Facebook.

These types of feature rollouts on megaplatforms are immensely frustrating for these reasons. The OFA tool is like Schrödinger’s cat, alive and dead at once. Technically, the feature exists … for someone … somewhere. Yet I cannot say when you or I will be able to access the tool, and for reasons both technical and strategic, Facebook cannot either. It makes it almost impossible for anyone except the company itself to inform the general public of tools they can use to protect and manage their privacy. There is no way for the press to be timely and informative about about these things, and that works enormously to Facebook’s advantage, keeping you locked in and unable to exercise even minimal control over your personal data.

Facebook’s Privacy Tool Launched Months Ago. Or Did It?