Freeing yourself from Facebook's new web trackers

Don't want Facebook tracking your every move across the Web? Here's how to get out of the new Facebook traps.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Once upon a time — 2011 — a hacker discovered that Facebook was tracking you on the Web even after you had left the site. Facebook denied that it was using cookies to track you off-site, but strangely enough, after many protests, Facebook changed its tracking behavior anyway. Now, in 2014, Facebook has announced — stop me if you've heard this before — that they'll be tracking your web browsing.

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Ironically, to avoid Facebook's new tracking system, you must let the Digital Advertising Alliance's "Opt Out" page scan your web browser's cookies and history.

Of course, Facebook puts a more positive spin on its tracking policy change. "When we ask people about our ads, one of the top things they tell us is that they want to see ads that are more relevant to their interests." So, in the US, instead of just relying on what pages and posts you like on Facebook,Facebook will start using information from the websites you visit and the apps you use.

On the plus side, Facebook will also let you see why you'll be seeing these ads. New style ads will have a tiny arrow in the top right corner. If you click on it, you'll have the option of discovering the "Why am I seeing this?” ad.

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You will also have the option of blocking ads from a specific advertiser or type of product. To do this, you'll once more click on the top-right arrow in the ad and choose to hide all such ads.

What you can't do to avoid these new Facebook ads is use a web browser's Do Not Track (DNT) option. Facebook has deliberately chosen not to honor DNT on the grounds that there's "no industry consensus" behind it.

In all fairness, Facebook is right about DNT. The DNT "standard" never had real support from the advertisers and without them it could never be more than a dead standard walking.

So if you want to avoid these new ads you'll need to go through the Digital Advertising Alliance's, (DAA) own privacy portal. As it happens, the DAA is the group whose withdrawal from the W3C led to the end of any effective work on DNT.

The DAA's "privacy" portal will then scan your web browser's cookies and history — oh the irony! — and tell you what advertising networks will honor your request to no longer receive "interest-based advertising from some or all of our participating companies." You can choose to opt out of Facebook's new targeted ads as well as tracking ads from many other advertisers such as eBay, Google and Microsoft.

The DAA and its partners do this by setting a cookie that informs the companies you've selected that you don't want them to "collect and use information about your browser’s online activities for the purpose of online behavioral advertising." You will then need to repeat this process for each browser and every device you use. There is no one-stop method to avoid tracking mechanisms. 

If you don't want to be part of Facebook's brave new world of advertising with your mobile apps, you must also make the following changes to your tablets and smartphones.

  • On Apple devices, open Settings and go to General->Restrictions->Advertising, and then click "Limit Ad Tracking."
  • On Android devices, go to Settings and from there head to Google Settings->Ads-> and check Opt Out of Interest-Based Ads.

Of course, to really avoid Facebook following you, you could always just leave Facebook. Considering that Facebook now has well over a billion users and more than half a billion of them are active on mobile devices every day, it doesn't seem likely that everyone will start leaving. So, if you care about your privacy, you're just going to keep an eye on Facebook and keep patching and fixing your privacy shields as Facebook continues to change its policies.

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