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"Clear History"? Why not #DeleteFacebook instead

by Georgia Young Contributions Published on May 03, 2018 01:45 PM

On Tuesday, at the Facebook developers conference, CEO Mark Zuckerberg once again asked the social media site's users for their trust, when he announced a new privacy control for the site. Called "clear history," Zuckerberg claims it will allow users to clear their browsing history on Facebook, apparently including activity like which Web sites one has visited.

This is an empty gesture. Facebook is clearly attempting to placate an angry public and defend itself against scrutiny by the US government, but it is still putting the impetus to protect user privacy on users, rather than simply choosing not to collect information on Facebook users in the first place.

It will surprise many people clicking this new button to learn that, while Facebook says you will be able to clear your history, the company will still have a copy of that activity -- it just won't be associated with your account.

This is a symptom of a fundamental problem. When you interact with Facebook, you are giving up control over your computing to a server run by someone else -- it's Service as a Software Substitute. The parts of it that do run on your local system are nonfree JavaScript.

Even if they did promise to delete your activity from their servers, there is no way to verify that, because you cannot inspect either the nonfree JavaScript or the server-side software. Users are left to trust that the code only Facebook can read does what Facebook says it does. No company can be trusted with that kind of power over users, least of all one with Facebook's track record.

Though they want you to believe they care about protecting your privacy, unless Facebook decides to completely overhaul itself using exclusively free software and decentralize, allowing people to run federated nodes of that software on their own computers, nobody should expect to go untracked.

US Congress battered Zuckerberg with questions in a hearing following the Cambridge Analytica scandal earlier this year, and though no concrete action has come from those conversations so far, there are ways in which governments could act to prevent covert mass data collection online in the future. Even the nodes in a decentralized free software social network could inappropriately collect data, and quality regulation could prohibit the practice.

But regulation alone will not be enough. Technology itself must be built in ways that respect users. We urge you to #DeleteFacebook and try one of the decentralized social Web options discussed on the Free Software Foundation's High Priority Projects list -- you may even try self-hosting a node for others to use. Send us your first message on Diaspora or GNU social (which can talk to Mastodon accounts, too).

Zuckerberg probably wishes he could "clear history" of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that put Facebook under scrutiny in the first place. We encourage him to #DeleteFacebook in favor of a decentralized, free software-driven option, too.

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