The Gator Bites Back

Facebook’s new “Link History” anti-feature reminds me of a very old data-siphoning trick: Create something of nominal value to convince consumers to give up the goods.

By Ernie Smith

In a world where even the less technical among us have an awareness that their data is being used and abused for marketing purposes, it means that avenues once relied upon by tech giants are now closing.

Which means that they have to get clever when they find the new doors.

One of those new doors showed up earlier this week in the Facebook mobile app, as the company promoted a new feature called “Link History.” Essentially, it is taking your browser history within its ecosystem and selling you on it as a feature.

To be clear, it’s not a total shock that Facebook is using this data to siphon your information. It’s likely been doing this for years, only now it’s asking through the front door, because it really has no other choice. Regulators are putting too much pressure on Meta to support anything that isn’t front-facing, and additionally the biggest player in the smartphone game, Apple, has been slowly winnowing down its access to data.

So now, it’s stuck asking (really, informing with a clear exit sign), rather than Facebook just taking. It actually feels kinda like a throwback. I was there back in the day when the social network convinced thousands of websites to put their code on it in exchange for the ability to get a like button or a list of fans. It seemed so nice at the time, but it was hiding something: A bunch of code that gave it an external social graph, and an understanding of the further reaches of the Web.

It was a Trojan horse, and we fell for it, hook, line, and sinker. Once it had everything it needed behind its walled garden, it didn’t really need to focus on those goofy little widgets anymore.

So, in a way, it’s nice that Facebook is making it clear that this feature is there, and making it somewhat clear that you can opt out. But don’t see that as an act of altruism. They are putting just enough value in the presentation of your own data, which can be gathered through a traditional web browser without quite as much data siphoning, that they can give a reasonable excuse for taking it.

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And the transparency isn’t particularly impressing the skeptics. Speaking to superhuman freelance scribe Chris Stokel-Walker in Fast Company, data protection pro Pat Walshe felt that there was plenty to worry about when it comes to Link History.

“What you browse should be private to you,” Walshe said. “The proposed use should be opt-in and not opt-out and should apply irrespective of how you access Facebook.”

Gator e Wallet

The Gator eWallet website, circa early 2000s. (via Internet Archive)

Honestly, Meta’s strategy reminds me a lot of a very old-school piece of adware that annoyed many internet users during the Windows ME era. Gator eWallet, which I wrote about in 2021, promised to make your life easier by filling in your forms, in exchange for pulling you into the GAIN Network—as they put it, “the world’s largest in-context behavioral advertising network.” (How quaint.)

It wasn’t the first of its kind—Comet Cursor, which promised to change your mouse cursor, predated it by a few years—but the goal was the same. They wanted to Trojan horse your activity.

Meta is essentially offering the same thing a quarter-century later—a small amount of convenience in exchange for digesting all of your data. The new frontier of behavioral targeting is a repeat of the old frontier, and one of the world’s largest companies is basically being forced to recycle an old playbook.

Of course, Meta isn’t alone here. Google has finally started its plans to cull third-party cookies, meaning that lots of advertisers are going to be feeling the same kind of pain that Meta is in the coming weeks. It is likely that we’re going to see similar tactics going forward—a tool that looks like a utility, but is really putting all your data in the mouth of the gator.

Links Worth Opting Into

I have looked far and wide for someone, somewhere doing something interesting in the FOSS space that could hold a candle to the Adobe Creative Cloud suite, and I found it. It’s called Graphite, and while relatively embryonic, it looks very promising. Keep an eye on this one.

As a follow-up to our piece on Blue Scuti’s epic Tetris run, just a heads up that Fractal, the defending Tetris world champion, has now also reached a game crash. Congrats on the epic feat, Fractal—I watched it in full this morning, and my head is still spinning.

I have been reading Tom Scocca’s words for years, and this piece of his scared me, because what he describes in it could happen to anyone.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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