Don’t Want Your Online Behavior Tracked? Learn About Facebook’s New Privacy Updates

In late May 2016, Facebook made two big changes to their privacy policy.

One affects Facebook members, i.e., anyone with an account on the social media website.

The second affects everyone who browses the internet—even if they’re Facebook-free. Both are related to advertising.

We’ve covered how Facebook gathers and uses this information, as well as how to control your privacy settings, in What Facebook Knows About You (and How They Profit Off Your Private Info).

Here’s what’s changed, along with a quick rundown of current policies for those catching up:

For Facebook Users: What You Need to Know About Privacy Policy Updates

First, Facebook knows a lot about you. The social networking platform gets this information based off of which websites you visit and what you “like”—both on and off their website.

This is possible because Facebook leaves cookies in your browser that track your activities across the web, so that they can learn more about your interests.

Facebook is also integrated with many websites (think “like” buttons and comment fields at the end of articles like this one), which allows them to learn even more information about what your preferences.

Facebook uses what it has learned about you to shape the ads that you see. This is called “interest-based advertising” and, the way Facebook puts it, they’re just trying to make sure that the advertisements you see are as relevant as possible.

Where do you see Facebook’s advertisements? You’re probably most familiar with the ads that show up as “promoted posts” in your Facebook news feed.

However, what you likely didn’t know was that, even when you’re browsing other websites, some of the ads that appear are due to Facebook. (Think pop-ups and sidebar ads.)

Up until now, these ads from the Facebook Audience Network have only been visible to members of the social network. (More on how this has changed coming up.)

First, Facebook Privacy Policies That Haven’t Changed

Two years ago, Facebook started what it calls their Audience Network. This is the name for the network of businesses who buy advertising space with Facebook.

Since they started offering your information to advertisers in the Facebook Audience Network, users like you and I have been able to opt out of allowing Facebook to track their behavior across the different websites and smartphone applications that you use.

For example, let’s say that you’ve “liked” articles on Huffington Post’s own website. Unless you opted out of tracking, Facebook would be informed of your habits—and could then use that information to shape the ads that are displayed in your feed to target your interests.

Speaking of in-feed ads, for the past few years, you’ve also been able to tell Facebook that you’d like to see less of any given kind of ad. This won’t change. However, that is different from saying you’d like to see fewer ads overall—which isn’t an option.

What’s New? Now Users Can Opt Out of Facebook Tracking Your Interests

In the course of your Facebook usage, the things you “like” or otherwise express interest in while using Facebook, itself, are cataloged under your “ad preferences.” These are the topics that Facebook thinks you care about, and, in part, are what it bases the ads you’re shown on.

Up until recently, users haven’t been able to opt-out Facebook tracking their interests and behavior on the social media website. However, as of May 26th, Facebook now allows users to opt-out of in-platform activity tracking.

For example, if you “like” an NY Times news story a friend has shared, you’ll likely see an increase in subscription ads for the NY Times and similar news sources in your Facebook feed. Again, this is different from your activity outside of Facebook.

And, remember how we mentioned that Facebook also tracks what you’ve liked across the web through integrations with other websites? Before this update, you had to return to those different sites to disallow tracking.

With this update, Facebook has bundled what it thinks you like (ad preferences) from both web-wide and in-platform activity into one, single area—rather than spread out all across the web.

This allows you to manage your ad preferences on Facebook with a single click—you can see yours here.

Just to clarify, this doesn’t mean you won’t see ads from the Facebook Audience Network! But when you do, they won’t be based on whether you happened to have “liked” Rebecca Black one especially forgettable evening back in college.

Note: Your Current Privacy Settings Haven’t Been Reset

Facebook users rest easy: While the platform has introduced a new privacy setting, it hasn’t overridden any previous preferences.

Instead, when Facebook asks if “your Facebook ad preferences can be used to show you ads on apps and websites off of the Facebook Companies,” it’s giving you the option to turn off something that had previously been on by default, with no means of opting out. Now you can, right here.

Bottom line for current users: Facebook’s new privacy policies give you more control over how your behavior is tracked by providing a single space for you to manage your interests.

Don’t Have a Facebook Account? You’re Still Subjected to Their Ads

Previously, Facebook only showed ads to Facebook users on other websites by using information the company had collected about users’ interests and by installing cookies on browsers.

However, along with the privacy updates made available to members as of late May, Facebook has also introduced a way to show ads to people across the internet—not just those with an account.

How can you be targeted by a website that you don’t even use?

Because targeted advertising has become commonplace across the internet, Facebook believes that it can more accurately target non-members using the vast amounts of data it already has on the nearly 1.7 billion people who use the site.

Basically, Facebook is using the information they already know about all their users to make some (probably accurate) assumptions about who you are and what you like. This is called “lookalike targeting,” and is just one more confirmation that we’re not unique little snowflakes after all.

Non-Members: Here’s How You Can Prevent Tracking

While the idea of being targeted for advertising based on your interests by a website you’re not even part of might creep you out, know that you can opt-out of tracking.

Unlike for Facebook users, there’s not a single, catch-all page to manage your interests. Instead, you need to visit the Digital Advertising Alliance’s opt-out page. You’ll have to do this on each browser you use, which is a little bit annoying, but only takes a couple of clicks each time.

Don’t forget also to opt out on your mobile device! Thankfully, this is a little easier:

  • On iOS, go to Settings > Privacy > Advertising > Limit Ad Tracking 
  • On Android, go to Settings > Google > Ads > Opt out of interest-based ads

By following those steps, Facebook will no longer serve you ads based on your online activity.

Understand That You’ll Still See Ads, But Your Activity Won’t Be Tracked

Here’s the deal: The internet isn’t free, making ad networks pretty much an inescapable part of browsing online.

Much of the news and information we read online, along with the games, videos, and other things we enjoy, are supported by advertising. More people have access to more content than ever before—often for free—because the publishers and developers behind websites and apps rely on advertising to pay the bills.

While you can opt out of Facebook’s tracking, know that you will still see advertisements—they just won’t be targeted to your interests.

Which means there’s no real right or wrong action here. You can choose to allow Facebook and other Digital Advertising Alliance companies to track your interests, thereby showing you higher-quality ads (no default sound, no deceptive ads, fewer accidental click-throughs, etc.) than you might otherwise be subjected to.

Or, if you’d prefer to remain untracked, less relevant, more annoying ads might well be a worthy trade off.

The choice is up to you—as is the responsibility of staying informed and up to date. To help you learn more, visit Facebook’s cookies policy page to learn about new changes to their ad network.

Remember, users with a Facebook account can opt out of the ad scheme by adjusting their settings. Non-Facebook members can opt out through the Digital Advertising Alliance in the US, the Digital Advertising Alliance in Canada, and the European Interactive Digital Advertising Alliance in Europe.


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Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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