Off-Facebook Activity: A Privacy Feature For Nerds or Survivalists

On Tuesday (1/28), Mark Zuckerberg announced that all Facebook users will now have access to a new privacy features called “Off-Facebook Activity” or OFA. Facebook has teased this feature since the Congressional hearings in May 2018, and later rolled it out to a select number of users since August 2019. Essentially, OFA is a tool that allows users to manage the information that websites and apps send to Facebook with the Facebook pixel and Facebook SDK. 

Why Is Facebook Doing This? 

Recently, we posted about how Facebook, Google and Twitter are updating their political advertising policies heading into 2020. Facebook not only faces increased scrutiny regarding how political entities use Facebook for political advertisements, but how your data is shared in general. With the Cambridge Analytica scandal, politically-motivated actors took advantage of Facebook’s vulnerable data security protocols and used illegally obtained data from tens of millions of users to create psychological profiles. Those profiles were then used to specifically target the most reactive people with politically charged messages on Facebook.

Since then, Facebook has been faced with demands for reform from the government, the media and users on many different fronts. Recently, Facebook announced that it would not fact-check politicians, but instead follow a policy of increased transparency so that politicians and users police themselves — a sort of political advertising panopticon, but many argue that it’s not enough. Facebook argues that it’s in the interest of protecting free speech.

From societal and consumer perspectives, data security is an important, ongoing conversation that will likely shape how we interact with technology, businesses, and each other throughout the 2020s and beyond. In the long-run, people need to feel safe and trust the way they interact with technology, especially as we continue to demand that technologies know us better and give us what we want faster. Facebook is slowly giving us more control over the data that we share, but we have to be willing to manage those settings ourselves.

Will This Affect My Facebook Ads?

In the short-term, many CMOs and digital advertisers are probably wondering, “Are these changes going to hurt ad performance?” Let’s be honest, we’re often the most concerned with the things that affect our lives in a direct, tangible way — like your CEO asking why CPAs are up and sales are down.

At this point, I wouldn’t sound any alarms because OFA: 

1) Is not really that new of a feature

2) It’s pretty complicated for your average user

3) It’s hidden away

4) It brings inconvenience to your digital life, according to Facebook.

With Off-Facebook Advertising’s features, users can elect to stop companies from associating this data with their personal Facebook accounts. Advertisers may be worried that the quality of targeting will decrease because we won’t be able to speak to customers with as much specificity. Depending on what proportion of people elect to use this feature, that may have some truth to it. Though, Facebook seems to have intentionally structured this feature to nudge users towards, at the very least, a compromise between data sharing and their in-platform experience.

For tech savvy readers, how the Facebook pixel collects data is neither surprising nor scary, in fact, it’s a part of everyday advertising life. Websites and apps fire off events when certain actions take place on their owned properties. These events are transmitted to Facebook and associated with a user’s account, and then that media provider will use this information to more accurately speak to customers based on what they know about them. However, for many Facebook users, this realization may come as a surprise.

On one hand, it conjures up the feelings of an Orwellian cliché, that someone has always been watching you. On the other, it’s akin to Dorothy and the “Man Behind the Curtain.” Behind Facebook and Instagram’s sleek Newsfeeds, there’s been a silent entity calling all the shots behind the scenes — your accumulated data.

So, how many of these knee-jerk reactions will really translate into total data disconnection? Who will, when faced with the decision themselves, opt to stop sharing data if it makes their Facebook experience less personalized? Do people just want the data problem to be solved for them or do they want to actively manage what they share? These are the questions that come to mind when thinking about OFAs potential impact.

How Do These Off-Facebook Activity Controls Work?

Here’s an example from my personal treasure trove of Facebook data. I signed up for a SQL course on Udemy (an online educational platform) a few weeks ago. In Facebook’s OFA section, I found Udemy as one of 157 companies that I’ve interacted with in the last 180 days. Here, you can see some of the events that Facebook tracks, specifically 3 events with Udemy — likely an account creation, an install, and a purchase. This is one small part of the more than 2.58 GB of information that Facebook allowed me to download and view for myself, but it gives you a sense of what Facebook’s opening up to all users. 

I remember my interactions with almost every company on this list (a small section shown below), and those interactions do largely represent the types of things I’m interested in. I’m a millennial man that likes doing millennial things: ordering too much delivery, watching Vice documentaries and booking trips with Airbnb. However, there is one strange entry on there that caught my eye: d8rk54i4mohrb. After a quick Google, I was able to ascertain that the content data platform SimpleReach was responsible for this seemingly sinister entry. To me, there was no reason to block them, but I appreciated the ability to do a little research.

Will People Use These Off-Facebook Activity Controls?

The real change with OFA comes with some deeper features that are, at first, hidden under the “What You Can Do” dropdown. These are the “Clear History” and “Manage Future Activity” tabs that allow the user to clear the last 180 days of data and/or disassociate all OFA data from their account, provided that you’re brave enough to go through with it after Facebook’s final attempt to dissuade you. When a person clicks to deactivate the connection between their account and Off-Facebook Activity, Facebook sends the below prompt to remind you of a few things.

Translation: 

1) You’re going to have a “worse” Facebook experience

2) Your digital life will be less convenient

3) Facebook will still have your information

4) Facebook will now serve you irrelevant ads instead of relevant ones

Who Will Use These Features?

This pop-up won’t stop the off-the-grid, Ron Swanson survivalist type from cutting the cord, and data nerds will enjoy fiddling with settings and exploring their digital footprint. However, I would expect these nudges prevent a casually concerned person from opting out indefinitely, the worst case scenario for Facebook. The way this feature was rolled out will likely minimize its impact to the advertiser.

If you’re still concerned about the people that will go through with disconnecting from OFA, hiding ads and excluding companies from reaching your Newsfeed with ads is not new. Facebook’s early steps towards giving users control over the ads they see actually came in August 2016 with developments to Facebook’s “Ad Preferences” tab. With this update, people could tell Facebook that they did not want to see ads about certain interests (like cats or travel) as well as cut off specific business or media outlets from serving them ads. 

If anything, this improved the quality of people ads reached by removing people no longer wanted to see what you were offering them. We’ve still continued to invest and see great returns on our advertising spend on Facebook because of the robustness of targeting options and the breath of creative available to advertisers in the last four years. Again here with OFA, the people that are disconnecting are people that do not value their Facebook experience for discovery.

I have also personally explained the “ad preferences” tab to many friends and family members, and, if I did not coach them through the process, I’m not sure that they would have been able to do this on their own. As The Atlantic finds, the complexity of what OFA delivers to the end user is somewhat overwhelming and that in itself may be a turnoff to many people. In the end, we will continue to monitor Facebook performance overall, but it’s going to take a lot of people living ‘off the grid” to put a dent in Facebook’s strength as an advertising platform.

Do We Know Enough To Care?

Personally, I am less concerned with whether the brands I know and love are tracking my actions on their sites. In fact, I actually think that I prefer it. This goes back to the idea that we are more motivated by the tangible forces that affect us directly. It’s easy to understand how disconnecting Off-Facebook Activity might make my Facebook experience less personal to me, so that tangible fear is more powerful than an abstract one about how seemingly benign data about what I like and interact could be exploited, some way, somehow, in the future.

The issue is less about who I’m sharing my data with, and more about what they’re doing with it. When you think about the Cambridge Analytica data breach, people initially shared their information with an innocuous quiz app. I wouldn’t have cleared my connection with that app because I wouldn’t have known it was vulnerable. If Facebook didn’t know, then how would I?

Will your average user trade an immediate, tangible downgrade in their Facebook experience to protect against an abstract threat? I don’t think so. If Facebook wanted to truly lay down the gauntlet, then they would be increasing transparency about which entities have questionable data practices, imposing firm tangible repercussions for those agencies (banning them from the remarketing ecosystem or from Facebook and Instagram entirely), and publicly fighting against organizations with questionable data practices.

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