Experts split on Meta’s new Link History: ‘It’s pro-privacy’ v ‘It violates user trust’
A new tool gives Facebook users access to a storehouse of the links they’ve clicked from within the mobile app – data from which may be shared with advertisers. The development has been lauded as a transparency-enhancing improvement by some – but denounced by others for thwarting user expectations.
Meta is now giving users access to a 30-day history of the links they've clicked from within Facebook's browser / Adobe Stock
Facebook will now show users a record of the links that they’ve clicked from within the app’s browser over the previous 30 days.
Meta has for many years collected data about the links that users click from within Facebook – which open within a custom-built Facebook browser, as opposed to the device’s default mobile browser, like Safari or Google Chrome – but now, a repository of this information, called Link History, will be accessible to all Facebook users. This feature will require opt-in from users.
Insights from Link History may also be used by advertisers for ad-targeting purposes.
“[This is] a standard feature for most browsing experiences,” Emil Vazquez, a policy communications manager at Meta, told The Drum. “It makes it easier for people to revisit links they’ve clicked on in the past and can improve the quality of the ads they see.”
Meta has introduced the new feature across various markets in recent months. It will be rolled out to all iOS and Android users globally in the coming months and is not currently unavailable on desktop.
A shift toward improved transparency?
The move is being praised by some privacy advocates as a step toward improved transparency. “Overall, this strikes me as a pro-privacy move, particularly [since] it’s providing insights to users ... about the kinds of tracking that take place when you use a mobile app with an in-app browser,” says Cobun Zweifel-Keegan, managing director of the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP), a Washington, DC-based privacy advocacy group.
Link History’s 30-day retention cycle, Zweifel-Keegan says, is also a win for data privacy, as other apps with similar in-app browsers may choose to retain this kind of information for a longer period of time. Plus, Facebook says it automatically deletes users’ Link Histories after 90 days if users opt out of the feature.
“Advertisers have long known that as you get past a certain amount of time, [consumer] data becomes less and less valuable because it no longer reveals people’s interest in the moment,” Zweifel-Keegan says. “So it’s interesting to see companies embracing retention limits on ad-related data.”
Though he acknowledges that Meta may be motivated to give users the opt-out option only as a means by which to entrench further its legal ability to continue collecting this data, Zweifel-Keegan says it’s “standard practice” for apps with in-app browsers to collect this information. He ultimately views Link History as a net positive for “providing transparency and control” over how user data is handled by the tech company.
A breakdown in user trust?
If a user opts out of Link History, Meta will presumably not track their in-app browser link activity, Zweifel-Keegan says.
However, the assumption that opting out of Link History means a wholesale stop to Meta’s in-app link tracking hasn’t yet been proven true. Gizmodo indicated yesterday in a report that it asked Meta whether the company creates additional records of the links that users click on from within the Facebook app; the company did not respond. A similar request from The Drum on Wednesday did not receive a response either.
Plus, even if a user has manually turned off other forms of data-collection within Facebook, such as the platform’s Off-Facebook Activity tracking setting, they are still automatically opted into Link History.
“Users overwhelmingly don’t expect Facebook to track or collect their data elsewhere on the web when they’re not on a Facebook property or website – so the fact that they’re doing it within the browser inside of Facebook doesn’t suddenly change their expectations,” says Jason Kint, chief executive officer at Digital Content Next, a digital media trade body. “It violates consumers’ expectations.”
72% of users, according to research by Digital Content Next, don’t expect Facebook to collect data about their online activities on non-Facebook webpages if they don’t click the ‘Like’ button. Kint’s point is essentially that users’ lack of understanding about the extent of tracking – even if that tracking is legal – impinges on their trust and expectations.
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A regulatory risk
Meta is already under fire for violating consumer expectations. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last spring moved to expand a previous $5bn consent order with the company, alleging that Meta failed both to protect user privacy adequately and to “fully comply” with the order’s requirements about how the company represents its privacy practices. (The company petitioned an appeals court in November to block the FTC’s reopening of the consent agreement).
The new Link History feature could very well attract further scrutiny from the FTC and US regulators.
Furthermore, while the practice of collecting user data on in-app browser links may be common across the web, Kint argues that Meta’s outsized control of the market imbues it with greater responsibility to set the standard.
“An argument that ‘other people do it’ doesn’t hold much water,” he says. “Facebook has a size and market dominance that [supersedes] the worst that anyone else that has an in-app browser [could be doing]. They set the bar, certainly. Meta is at a point where, with anything they do, they need to be able to back up the fact that it lines up with consumer expectations. And at its face, this feature doesn’t.”
Kint calls Meta “a zero-trust company.”
Though the IAPP’s Zweifel-Keegan takes a decidedly more positive stance on the debut of Link History, he also believes that the launch could invite closer scrutiny of all apps that collect and track in-app link data. “This could raise questions about these other browsers: What is the best practice here? Should this be the norm? Do users understand the difference [between] the in-app browser … versus directing you to your mobile phone browser, or opening a link into your computer’s browser where you’re already on Facebook [via desktop]?”
Link History is thus far billed as a Facebook-only feature. But considering that other Meta properties, including Instagram and Threads, can be cross-linked to a user’s Facebook profile, there are open questions about link data collection across these other apps. Instagram’s Help Center, for instance, already includes information about how the app collects data about the content of links shared by individual users to improve ad targeting and suggest content to explore on the platform.
In any case, leaders in the digital media space don’t anticipate that Meta or other apps will soon dial back user data collection.
“Platforms and marketers will always look for new or different signals around which data can be developed, which in turn helps to improve ad products,” says Brian Wieser, principal of Madison and Wall, a strategic advisory firm Wieser founded last year after leaving his post as GroupM’s lead analyst.
“Regulations may prohibit the use of some of those signals, but that will encourage other products or uses of different data to follow.”
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