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May 27, 2024

Facebook Rolls Out Controversial “Link History” Tracking

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Jan 5, 2024

Facebook has begun rolling out a controversial new “Link History” feature to users that tracks every link they click in the Facebook app. While Facebook claims Link History will provide users with a convenient way to rediscover content, privacy experts and regulators have raised serious concerns about the invasive nature of the tracking and how the collected data could be used.

What is Link History and How Does It Work?

The Link History feature shows users a list of every link they have clicked within Facebook’s mobile app, going back to the beginning of 2023. This includes links in News Feed posts, Facebook Stories, Facebook Groups, Facebook Marketplace, and more.

When a user clicks on a link, Facebook records the URL and uses it to build a profile of the user’s interests over time. This history is then made visible to the user in their Facebook account settings under a new “Links” section. Users can browse their history, search for specific sites and content, and delete individual links.

According to Facebook, Link History allows users to “easily rediscover stories, articles, videos, Marketplace items, jobs, recipes” and more that they previously viewed. The company claims this is a privacy-focused feature providing transparency and control to users over their data.

Users can choose to turn Link History on or off at any time. However, even when turned off, Facebook still tracks users’ link-clicks in the background. The difference is the history just isn’t visible to the user anymore.

Why Privacy Experts Are Concerned

While Facebook promotes Link History as a helpful new way for people to revisit content, privacy experts and regulators have raised alarms about the depth of additional tracking the feature enables.

By creating an extensive log of every site and piece of content a person clicks on via the Facebook app, the company can build an increasingly detailed interest profile used for ad targeting. The deeper insights also aid Facebook’s AI algorithms in showing users posts they are more likely to engage with.

Some key concerns include:

  • Invasive tracking: Recording every link click, even if a user only views a page for seconds, provides Facebook an unprecedented level of visibility into people’s browsing histories, interests and habits. This data can reveal private medical issues, religious beliefs, political views and more.

  • Lack of informed consent: While the tracking is optional, there are fears many users won’t fully grasp what they are consenting to or how the data could be exploited when enabling Link History. The convenience of revisiting old content blurs the reality of the invasive monitoring occurring.

  • Ad targeting: Link History provides Facebook richer data to target users with ads. While users can opt out of much of Facebook’s ad targeting, privacy groups argue this takes advantage of people by making privacy the responsibility of the user rather than the platform.

  • Fuel for misinformation & polarization: Some experts have raised concerns Link History could further contribute to misinformation spread and polarization on Facebook by allowing unwanted amplification of controversial partisan content that holds users’ attention.

Pros Cons
Lets users rediscover old content Invasive tracking of all link clicks
Transparency into some data collection Lack of informed consent around tracking depth
Can be disabled fully or partially Provides data to target users with ads
Gives users some control over data Potentially amplifies misinformation & polarization

Regulators Investigating Link History

Privacy regulators around the world have already begun investigating Link History over suspected privacy violations.

The EU’s data protection watchdog initiated an inquiry within hours of Link History’s announcement. The UK Information Commissioner’s Office, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission and Australia’s Information Commissioner have also announced probes into the tracking technology’s GDPR compliance.

In the United States, the FTC said it is “aware” of Link History and is communicating with Meta about it. At least two US senators called for investigations by the FTC and DOJ.

The state attorneys general of California, Massachusetts and Connecticut have confirmed they are reviewing Link History for potential violations of state consumer protection laws regarding privacy and transparency.

On January 4th, Meta’s stock price dropped nearly 5% amid the swelling regulatory scrutiny. Still, Facebook appears committed to moving forward with the controversial release.

What Happens Next?

In typical Facebook fashion, it has barged ahead with launching Link History before resolving the thorny privacy issues raised around consent and data exploitation.

As with past privacy controversies like Facebook’s shadow profiles, emotion manipulation study or Cambridge Analytica data leak, the company is likely betting that public and regulatory furor will eventually blow over.

However, lawmakers worldwide seem increasingly unwilling to let Facebook continue operating by the mantra “move fast and break things” when it comes to user privacy and consent.

Over 2023, landmark regulations like the EU’s Digital Services Act and US American Data Privacy and Protection Act advanced. These finally threaten platforms with major fines for privacy violations.

It remains to be seen whether Link History becomes Facebook’s next major legal headache. For now, the controversial release is voluntary and Facebook is carefully framing it as an “opt-in transparency feature.”

But if investigations determine Link History violates key protections around necessary, proportionate and informed consent in data collection, Facebook could face injunctions forcing changes or disabling tracking altogether.

The coming months promise continued scrutiny around whether Facebook is appropriately balancing innovation that serves users with respect for individual privacy. For 2.9 billion people worldwide, much hangs in the balance.

AiBot

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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