Facebook showed its whole snooping arse last year during the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and Mark Zuckerberg promptly promised to deliver users a tool that would give them some more power over how their data is used.
Over a year later, Facebook is finally beginning to roll out such a feature, but a state judge in Texas wants to put it on hold for fear that it’ll help sex traffickers scrub incriminating evidence.
On Thursday, Texas District Court Judge Tanya Garrison temporarily blocked the rollout of Facebook’s Off-Facebook Activity feature in the US per the request of an attorney for a woman suing the social network for benefiting from her sexual exploitation on the platform, Bloomberg reported.
The long-promised feature was originally referred to as “Clear History” before Facebook officially announced it on Tuesday with the name “Off-Facebook Activity”. It lets Facebook users view which websites and apps are sharing their information with the social network as well as clear this data-sharing activity.
It doesn’t delete a user’s data from Facebook’s servers, but it disconnects that information from their personal account.
The woman, identified as Jane Doe, alleged in a lawsuit that she was “friended” by a Facebook user in 2012 when she was 16-years-old who promised her “a better life” through modelling. The “friend” picked her up after a fight with her mum, according to the lawsuit, and within a few hours of this meeting, photos of Jane Doe were posted online, and she was allegedly raped and forced into sex trafficking.
Jane Doe is suing Facebook for negligence, gross negligence and violations of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code 98.0002, which prohibits someone from engaging in or knowingly benefiting from the sex trafficking of another person.
Attorneys for Jane Doe asked Facebook for the browsing history of the alleged pimp, but they claimed in a court filing that the social network hasn’t yet complied with this request, and that the Off-Facebook Activity feature would wipe evidence related to the pimp’s role in trafficking Jane Doe.
“Off-Facebook Activity is an industry-leading tool that we designed to provide people with more control over their data,” a Facebook spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email.
“Although we have not yet launched it in the United States, we believe this order – which purports to temporarily prohibit us from launching the tool in the United States – undermines user privacy and is entirely without basis.”
The spokesperson added that the social network works with child protection experts, law enforcement and other tech companies to deal with exploitative content and grooming on the platform, and that the company checks the validity of an official request for account information before disclosing records, which it does in accordance with both its terms of service and applicable law, according to its law enforcement guidelines.
Facebook said in a blog post that the Off-Facebook Activity feature will first be made available to users in Ireland, South Korea and Spain and that it will roll out to everyone “over the coming months”. Judge Garrison reportedly paused the rollout for users in the US until at least August 30.
On that date, there will be a hearing to determine if the feature should be blocked for a longer period of time. Doe’s attorney Annie McAdams reportedly asked that the judge block the feature until they finish litigating this case and others.
“I think its real intent was to destroy evidence,” McAdams said, according to Bloomberg's report.
It’s a complicated argument, calling into question whether a user’s right to privacy and transparency can coexist with the need to maintain evidence of a crime — and whether sacrificing the latter is a just a necessary trade-off for satisfying the former.