Here’s how much Facebook was tracking me around the rest of the Web

Facebook finally fulfilled one of Mark Zuckerberg’s campaign promises this week–a promise dating back to May of 2018.

That’s when Facebook’s CEO said the company would roll out a “Clear History” feature that would let its users erase Facebook records of their activity at other sites and apps as gathered by the social network’s Like and Share buttons and other plug-ins.

(If it took you a long time to realize the extent of that tracking, I can’t blame you. Instead, I can blame me: The post I did for the Washington Post when my old shop integrated a batch of Facebook components to its site didn’t spell out this risk.)

Twenty months after Zuck’s announcement, this feature, renamed “Off Facebook Activity”, finally arrived for U.S. users on Tuesday. I promptly set aside that day’s tasks to check it out firsthand.

The good news, such as it was: Only 74 apps and sites had been providing Facebook info about my activity there. And most of them (disclosure: including such current and past clients as USA Today, Fast Company, The Points Guy and the Columbia Journalism Review) had only coughed up isolated data points.

The bad news: The Yelp, Eventbrite, AnyDo, and Duolingo apps had all coughed up more than 20 records of my interactions there, as had the sites of Home Depot and Safeway owner Albertson’s.

To judge from the responses I got from readers of my Facebook when I asked them how many sites and apps showed up in their own Off-Facebook Activity listings, I’m practically living a cloistered life. Most comments cited three-digit numbers, two close to four digits: 232, 356, 395, 862, and 974. One thing most of these users seemed to have in common: using Google’s Chrome as a default browser instead of Apple’s Safari or Mozilla Firefox, both of which automatically block tracking by social networks on other pages. The former is the default on my desktop, while the latter has that place on my laptop.

I’ve now cleared my history and turned off future Off-Facebook Activity–at the possible cost of no longer having WordPress.com publish new posts automatically to my Facebook page. I can probably live with that.

Google told me to put this blog on a diet

The screen real estate around these words should look a little neater now–not much thanks to my own editing instincts. Instead, I needed a scolding from Google.

That came from its PageSpeed Insights tool, a page you can use to check the performance of your own site or any other. It’s been around for years, but I didn’t think to use it until after I finally connected this site to Google’s Search Console webmaster tool last May (yes, even though I’ve been blogging here since 2011 and am supposed to be a professional tech journalist) and saw a prompt to try PageSpeed Insights in my results.

The results were not flattering: a mobile performance score of 47 out of 100, with desktop performance better but still subpar at 89. Scrolling down revealed a variety of flaws in this blog, some that I could correct with the limited tools of a free WordPress.com account and some that I could not.

I started with the first obviously fixable thing, image sizes. Google suggested that I convert such frequently-downloaded elements as the background image to “next-gen formats” like WebP or JPEG 2000. But instead of switching to files that Apple’s Safari browser can’t display, I opened the original photo for the background (a view of the Blue Ridge from a bike century ride in 2006) in my Mac’s GraphicConverter app and exported it with a lower image-quality setting that cut its size by a third at no visible cost.

That did not impress PageSpeed–my mobile score actually dropped to 44–so I moved on to the third-party code that Google reported had been getting in the way of my own content. It listed Facebook as a major offender, accounting for 207 milliseconds of delay. Removing the Facebook widget that you formerly saw in the right-hand sidebar boosted my mobile score to 53, with the desktop score essentially unchanged at 87.

(PageSpeed Insights scores fluctuate up and down with each test, so don’t get bent out of shape if yours drops by five for no apparent reason, at least not until you run the test again.)

Then I removed the Facebook and Twitter share buttons and elected to toss all of the share buttons except the tool to e-mail a link to the page. That edged the mobile score up to 58 and pushed the desktop score up to 96.

This pruning got me to look again at all the ads you see around here–and think about how low-rent so many of them are. I turned off the three “additional ad placement” options that had been salting each post with extra banners. That may cut into my ad revenue, but it’s already so thin I’d rather that my professional presence online not look quite so janky.

Having spun myself up fully into Marie Kondo mode, I returned to the sidebar and removed the Twitter widget (PageSpeed Insights had blamed Twitter code for 119 ms of delay) and some non-interactive links that only cluttered that part of the page.

The results of all this effort as calculated by PageSpeed Insights just now: scores of 76 on mobile and 99 on desktop. I hope you notice this blog loading a little quicker–and I trust you appreciate how this exercise has also rid my blog of Facebook’s tracking.

Weekly output: Facebook diet, 8K TV, social-media hearings

Another trip to Berlin for IFA is in the books, which means I’ve spent another year wondering when Berlin Brandenburg Airport–which was originally scheduled to open before my 2012 introduction to the show–will ever inaugurate scheduled commercial service.

8/28/2018: How to detox from Facebook, Yahoo Finance

I’d had the bones of this piece in mind since sometime after writing a similar how-to on reducing Google’s role in your life. I’m going to guess that most people didn’t install the Facebook Container extension for Firefox (although I am now running that on my Windows laptop), but I do hope that a good fraction of readers opted out of Facebook’s noisier mobile notifications.

Yahoo Finance IFA 8K post9/1/2018: Forget 4K TVs — 8K televisions are already here, Yahoo Finance

If it wasn’t obvious enough the last time I covered this topic: No, I really don’t think anybody should pay extra for 8K resolution, and if this entire format vanishes into consumer irrelevance as 3D TV did, I won’t be too sad. Meanwhile, I appreciated seeing Yahoo give this a little more publicity with a repost on Yahoo Sports.

9/2/2018: What to expect as Google, Facebook and Twitter face Capitol Hill lawmakers, Yahoo Finance

I wrote a curtain-raiser for Wednesday’s grillings of social-media executives in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Based on how prior House interrogations of tech execs have gone, my expectations for the latter hearing are exceedingly low.

Weekly output: Facebook ads, tech policy in Washington, Facebook tracking

My tweets the past few days have been coming at weird times because I was in Rome from Thursday through this morning for the IFA Global Press Conference. That’s a small spring event hosted by the organizers of the IFA tech trade show that runs in Berlin each summer. They invite a few hundred journalists and analysts–covering their travel costs–and put on a program of product introductions and a panel discussion or two. I’m not quite sure about how this works for the hosts as a business model, but for me it affords an advance look at some interesting gadgets (look for my writeup of Sharp’s pitch for 8K television soon) and quality networking. And, sure, the chance to spend a few days in a pleasant location.

4/16/2018: How advertisers target you on Facebook, Yahoo Finance

I’ve been meaning to write a longer explanation of how exactly Facebook lets an advertiser target its users (you’ve read short versions of that here), and the confusion many members of Congress expressed in their questions to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave this topic a handy news peg. I also used this story to get some firsthand acquaintance with Facebook’s “Custom Audiences” feature, which lets you upload a customer list and have Facebook show ads to users it matches up with the data in your list.

4/18/2018: Tech News in Washington, D.C. with Rob Pegoraro, Tech Policy Institute

I was a guest on this think tank’s Two Think Minimum podcast, discussing the history of tech policy and tech lobbying in D.C. with TPI communications director Chris McGurn and TPI fellows Scott Wallsten and Sarah Oh.

4/18/2018: Facebook tracking at other sites, Al Jazeera

The Arabic news channel had me do a Skype interview from home about how Facebook tracks people–and in particular, those who don’t have Facebook accounts–at other sites. My takeaway: While Facebook tracking people who aren’t on Facebook can sound creepy, that’s what every ad network does.

Updated 4/23/2018 to add TPI’s podcast. I’m blaming jet lag on making me forget to include that yesterday.

Weekly output: video surveillance, privacy vs. security, Facebook listening, universal basic income, intelligent assistants, convenience economy, UberAir, privacy fears

Once again, I’m at an airport. I got back from Web Summit on Friday, and now I’m headed to San Francisco for the Internet Association’s Virtuous Circle conference. This trip, however, will be a lot shorter than the last one: I fly back Wednesday.

11/6/2017: ‘Smart’ surveillance cameras should set off privacy alarms, Yahoo Finance

The advances in machine vision I saw demonstrated at the Nvidia GPU Tech Conference in D.C. last week both impressed and alarmed me–especially when I heard some of the responses of executives at companies bringing these artificial-intelligence technologies to the market.

11/7/2017: Debate: We should be prepared to give up our privacy for security, Web Summit

My first Web Summit panel was a debate between Threatscape managing director Dermot Williams and Federal Trade Commission commissioner Terrell McSweeny. I expected a one-sided audience vote at the end in favor of privacy, but Williams changed a few minds. There should be video of this somewhere, but I’ve yet to find it on Web Summit’s Facebook page.

11/8/2017: Why so many people still think Facebook is listening to them, Yahoo Finance

I’d had this post in the works for a while, and then CNN’s Laurie Segall asked Facebook’s Messenger head Stan Chudnovsky in a Summit panel about the persistent rumor that Facebook’s apps listen surreptitiously to your conversations. Hello, news peg.

11/8/2017: Double focus: IPO’s & the future of games, Web Summit

My contribution to Web Summit’s Wednesday programming was this interview of Rovio CEO Kati Levoranta. As you can probably guess from watching the video below, I exhausted my questions early on and had to improv a bunch of it.

11/9/2017: Why would you oppose Universal Basic Income?, Web Summit

This panel, held at one of the small stages in Web Summit’s speakers lounge, featured Basic Income Earth Network co-president Guy Standing, Kela change management director Marjukka Turunen, GiveDirectly CEO Michael Faye, and Portuguese foreign minister Augusto Santos Silva. Not having taken part in any extended debate on this topic before, I learned a few things from this conversation.

11/9/2017: The next evolution of intelligent assistants, Web Summit

I quizzed Sherpa founder Xabi Uribe-Etxebarria about what he thinks the likes of Amazon, Apple and Google miss in the AI-personal-assistant market and how he hopes to carve out a niche with his own app.

11/9/2017: Demand more: Driving the convenience economy, Web Summit

The last of Thursday’s three panels had me interviewing Trivago co-founder and CEO Rolf Schromgens and Casper co-founder Luke Sherwin about how each is trying to challenge long-established competitors. This panel featured an unexpected technical difficulty: The acoustics made it hard for Schromgens, seated farther away from me on the stage, to hear me.

11/9/2017: Uber’s grand plan for flying cars faces a major obstacle, Yahoo Finance

One of first thoughts about “UberAir” was something along the lines of “you’re really going to get the FAA to open up the national air system to flocks of new electric-powered air taxis?” A conversation over e-mail with aviation-safety expert Bob Mann led me to believe Uber is being predictably optimistic about the odds of it bending government regulators to its will.

11/12/2017: Web companies should make it easier to make your data portable: FTC’s McSweeny. USA Today

This column about the privacy discussions that carried on all week long in Lisbon benefited from a little luck: My debate partner from day one was on both of my flights back from Lisbon and even sat a row behind me on the EWR-DCA hop, so we had a quick chat after arriving at National Airport before she headed to the parking garage and I got on Metro.

Updated 11/27/2017 to add an embed of video of my first Web Summit panel.