Facebook spent most of 2018 embroiled in one scandal or another. But there was a point early on in the year when Mark Zuckerberg thought he could turn down the heat by offering a fix for the public’s privacy concerns. It was just weeks after the news broke that political consultancy Cambridge Analytica had surreptitiously obtained and employed the personal data of millions of people. And as the company headed into its annual F8 developers conference in May, the chief executive proposed a dramatic change ahead of a rehearsal for the keynote address: What if they announced a tool that let users clear web-browsing information that Facebook uses to target users with ads?
The suggestion caught people involved in the event’s production, where planning begins at least six months in advance, off guard. “Clear History” didn’t exist; it was barely an idea. But organizers still scrambled to build its announcement into Zuckerberg’s F8 keynote address. They’d already scrapped plans to unveil Portal, a video calling device that Facebook’s leadership thought might be seen as too invasive given the company’s predicament.
It was a bold public relations play. And for those familiar with the origins of the Clear History announcement, it demonstrated not only Zuckerberg’s unilateral power over product direction, but also Facebook’s long history of prioritizing optics and convenience over substantive protections for the people who use it. Company sources who spoke to BuzzFeed News characterized Zuckerberg’s proposal as “reactionary,” a response intended to ease the negative attention on the company following the Cambridge Analytica firestorm. They also said it might explain why the Clear History tool, whose announcement was proposed on the fly by Zuckerberg, is still not available nearly a year after he introduced it on stage at F8.