Homotech :: Is Manhunt Selling Your Sexual Orientation?
The next time you log onto Manhunt.net, you might keep in mind that those men you're chatting with aren't the only ones interested in your profile. With no announcement to its members or to the press, Online Buddies, the parent company of the hugely popular hook-up website, has launched an ad agency to help digital marketers reach Manhunt users after they've logged off.
Men visiting Manhunt are automatically tagged as gay, an attribute that follows them as they look at the newspaper, order a pizza or download a new song. It's part of an exploding trend wherein marketers target whatever they're hawking to specific demographics.
Why should you care? Maybe you don't. But many believe that a person's sexual orientation shouldn't be something made available to any marketer who asks.
Manhunt is calling its new advertising offshoot Gay Audience. Its website states its purpose: to allow advertisers to reach gay men beyond websites offering gay-related content. The company boasts that an ad agency can reach men when they're visiting a mainstream website such as Huffington Post using a retargeting technology called "audience extension."
For marketers who want to reach affluent gay men, it's a pretty enticing proposition. As we've become more accepted, we've also become a more desired part of the advertising market. Going to the New York Times' site, say, and seeing a gay-friendly ad for a car or travel destination is another way for marketers to get to this coveted audience -especially since many national advertisers shy away from sites with overtly sexual content or controversial opinions.
Unlike the universally gay-themed advertising on LGBT websites, however, it's necessary for someone to have "tagged" you as a gay man before the ads can follow you around the Web. And the technology being used at Manhunt is part of the Big Brother aspect of the Web that has concerned privacy advocates for years.
Department store magnate John Wanamaker famously complained that he knew half of his ads weren't reaching people, he just didn't know which half. These marketers are taking Wanamaker's dictum to the nth degree by reaching you all over the place.
Via Internet cookies, a brand "targets" people that visit its website and then "retargets" them as they surf the Web with ads that target their demographic. The thinking is that, if you didn't buy the product or at least click through the ad the first time around, it will eventually get under your skin enough so that you will be intrigued. Companies like Manhunt partner with giant websites or ad networks that bundle traffic across multiple websites in order to follow their users and target ads to them.
Some of the companies involved in the practice might surprise you. They include Microsoft, Google, AOL and Amazon, as well as smaller players. A company called Audience Science lists sample profiles it has gleaned from consumers. Some are pretty general - "Avid Shoppers," "Retirees." But others get pretty specific - "SUV Buyers," "Xbox Enthusiasts."
The 2012 Berkeley Privacy Census revealed that tracking consumers across the Web is increasing dramatically. Of the 25,000 most popular websites in the study, almost 90 percent dropped cookies.
Because it's so ubiquitous and people visit it so often, Facebook has become the poster child for lack of privacy controls. The consequences go beyond being bombarded by ads for a particular product or service. According to a 2011 study by Consumer Reports, seven million Facebook users have reported that, in the last year alone, they experienced a privacy breach, ranging from unauthorized log-ins to their accounts to some being harassed or threatened. Not surprisingly, a recent Associated Press-CNBC poll found more than half of the Facebook users questioned don't trust the company to keep their information private.
Of course, most of us get a pretty good indication that we're being followed when we see certain ad messages popping up repetitively. But for gay men and lesbians, there are larger, more serious issues involved.
As far back as 2010, when this technology was still relatively new, LGBT activists were shocked at the results of a research project spearheaded by Microsoft and the Max Planck Institute. Clicking on an ad - even one with absolutely no gay content or associations - immediately informed the marketer putting up the ad that the user was gay.
If that's bad, then it's even worse if advertisers are allowed to profile that user as gay and then follow them around the Internet. Blocking such potential privacy abuses has spawned policies by numerous mega-websites and networks prohibiting marketers from retargeting based on sexual orientation criteria.
For example, in response to a query about its practices, Google quickly shot off a policy statement about "What is prohibited: Sites that collect/store affirmative identification regarding sexual behavior or orientation from users cannot create remarketing lists using that sensitive information. Additionally, if the site is specifically aimed at users in a way where a visit to the site implies identification from the user, such as an online dating site specifically for users who identify as part of a sexual orientation or behavior group, it is not permitted."
AOL told EDGE that they never "target individuals based on sexual orientation" for remarketing purposes. Spokespeople at Microsoft and Yahoo confirmed that their remarketing products have comparable policies.
What about smaller players? EDGE contacted several companies under the guise of performing an audience extension exercise. One company did attempt to sell targeting based on sexual orientation, SpotXChange. Three others said they would not do so due to the sensitive nature of sexual orientation. Many others refused to comment or wouldn't respond at all.
When EDGE contacted Manhunt’s Gay Audience under a similar guise, a rep there confirmed that clients are already availing themselves of the system, which the rep admitted retargets users gleaned from Manhunt.net.
The justification given was there are already "plenty of companies that do this. It’s nothing new." Online Buddies CFO Richard Scott told EDGE that he considers this type of retargeting fairly standard offering among large websites.
"This is an ancillary product," Scott said. "We’re not targeting people, we’re not directly selling information. It’s no different than what happens when you go to Facebook."
Facebook has publicly stated that it will only allow data about a person’s sexual orientation to be accessed inside Facebook itself.
Online Buddies then sent EDGE a formal statement that insisted that "retargeting campaigns have been around for a number of years, and are recognizable to anyone who has done a Google search for a product, only to see ads for that product later in their browsing session. Retargeting technology is now commonly used by just about every major online publisher."
Many of the ads you see on smaller gay-oriented websites were probably placed there by a company called the Gay Ad Network. It routinely fills ad inventory on Queerty, Real Jock, Instinct magazine, and many local gay newspapers, among others. The company has also recently launched a remarketing product that will target LGBT consumers outside their gay network via audience extension; they call the practice "Gay Audience Behavioral Targeting."
The company’s CEO, Mark Elderkin said, however, that Gay Ad Network does not itself profile individuals. Rather, it uses an outside source - perhaps one of those smaller companies we researched - to do the retargeting for them.
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Like Online Buddies, Elderkin explained that the giant websites are all doing this. In his case, he cited Google rather than Facebook.
"They track when you’ve done a search on Google for the word ’gay’ and then they make an assumption regarding your sexual orientation," Elderkin said. "These [companies] have tremendous amounts of data on hand."
While Elderkin said he wouldn’t entirely rule out having the Gay Ad Network do such profiling, he quickly added that he’d be very careful about it. "How we do it, when we do it, it’s a very tricky situation," he said, before adding another reference to the major players: "We’re going to follow the lead of the mainstream players like Google and Facebook."
But those larger websites themselves were the companies eager to hand EDGE corporate statements insisting that they forbid this type of activity.
Currently, the United States lacks a comprehensive privacy protection law. The White House has presented a Privacy Bill of Rights. Two other bills that have not yet passed - the Do Not Track Me Online Act of 2011 and the Kerry/McCain Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights Act of 2011 - proposed required opt-in consent for sensitive data such as sexual orientation. The courts haven’t provided much help, either. Although Google and Facebook both settled lawsuits with the Federal Trade Commission in 2011 over privacy issues, the cases were notable mostly because they were so unique.
The issue strikes at the heart of the Internet, which is heavily dependent on ad revenue. With digital advertising reaching $29 billion annually, lobbyists have been busy ensuring that things stay pretty much the way they are.
"If you get rid of that, you kill the Internet," Linda Woolley, head lobbyist for the Direct Marketing Association, recently told Reuters. "It’s just that simple."
"This is an interesting paradox," said Solon Barocas, a New York University doctoral candidate researching privacy and Web tracking. "The LGBT community may be underserved as consumers in mainstream, general-readership media. Bringing LGBT-oriented ads to these publications might be a good thing because that community might benefit from ads that are specifically tailored to their needs and interests."
But targeting certain ads to LGBT readers, he cautioned, may undercut our political significance by hiding those ads from a mainstream audience. He also called into question using any data from a hook-up site, which users want to keep a highly private space hidden from outside eyes.
"Someone’s use of a ’dating and hook-up’ service should not signal their willingness to receive ads anywhere else on the web that target them on the basis of their use of that service," Barocas said. "By breaching the barrier that separates what people do on these sites and their lives on the rest of the web, [this type of targeting] undermines the integrity of the sphere in which people are open about their sexuality and pursue intimate relationships."
He also accused those who are retargeting their users based on sexual orientation while claiming they don’t sell gay men’s identities of playing two sides of the coin.
"I think it’s a very clever but also sinister way of getting around the idea that they’re using sensitive information," he pointed out. "A company that profiles people based on data like [sexual orientation] says they’re not actually passing any information to someone, because they’re not. This information doesn’t reside anywhere. That kind of loophole is precisely what the larger networks are trying to prohibit by explicitly preventing profiling on this type of data."
In the absence of government legislation, digital ad network firms and marketers have banded together to produce self-regulation bodies. The Network Advertising Initiative and the Digital Advertising Alliance are the two of the most respected bodies that govern ad networks performing retargeting. While the NAI clearly lists sexual orientation as "sensitive" data that should not be tracked, the DAA’s Ad Choices system limits its definition to specifics such as medical records and social security numbers.
Mike Zeneis of the Internet Advertising Bureau, however, did call sexual orientation "sensitive," adding that companies "should proceed with caution before creating a characteristic or demographic or a profile based on this kind of information."
Lee Frank, Manhunt’s Advertising Director, told EDGE that correlating sexual orientation profiling with a privacy violation is something Manhunt believes is a stretch. "It is a difficult leap to think that an individual may be put at risk based on an advertisement that appears on a web site that they visit," he said. "For example, JC Penney is currently running an ad campaign featuring gay dads. Presumably this ad is targeted to the general audience. Does the appearance of this ad on a web site - whether seen by a straight or gay individual - somehow compromise that individual’s privacy or security? We cannot see how that is the case."
But Matthew Hejach, Director of Product Marketing at TRUSTe, a company that specializes in ensuring compliance with ad network self regulation, pointed out that protecting sexual orientation is actually considered a standard in the industry.
"All of what I would call the respectable players believe that that sexual orientation belongs in a sensitive data category," he told EDGE. "If you’re finding people who are saying we can offer sexual orientation targeting on an opt-out basis, that’s... certainly going against the actual rules of these self-regulatory bodies, and if any of these people are pointing to major companies and saying that’s how they do it, they’re incorrect."
Hejach asserted that companies involved in the NIA or DAA initiatives that target based on sexual orientation would be subject to fines and/or removed from the certification programs.
Moreover, according to these organizations, websites doing behavioral targeting must post a clear notice of the practice and offer a clear opt-out. Neither Gay Ad Network nor Manhunt does that.
For their part, privacy advocates are especially concerned that such data could lead to hate crimes, bullying or outing thanks to a targeted advertisement.
"This category of information is reasonably considered sensitive because people who are gay still suffer discrimination all the time," Barocas pointed out. "Sexual orientation is still something that people tend not to reveal so rapidly because it might be used against them in certain settings."
Right now, most people aren’t aware that they have any options at all, as narrow as those are. Major Web browsers like Apple’s Safari, Microsoft Explorer and Mozilla Firefox do let users request they not be tracked via cookies. But it’s only a "request" that advertisers and website owners can choose to ignore. And initiatives like Ad Choices - represented by the small blue info triangle superimposed on ads that permits users to opt out of retargeting - is only effective if the ad networks and marketers participate in the program. According to Hejach, those profiling via sexual orientation wouldn’t be welcome.
In the interim, users have to rely on the ethics of web publishers to protect their identity; and the web community is infamous for sacrificing ethics for bucks. For websites, as Zaneis puts it, "it’s always a question of what can be done, versus what should be done."
So far, the millions of men who are Manhunt’s subscribers haven’t raised any objections about being profiled and retargeted by marketers in this way. But that might be because they don’t know it’s happening.
The site has been the subject of controversy in the past, most notably when it was revealed that one of its co-founders contributed monetarily to John McCain’s presidential campaign. But if gay ads follow a closeted student around on his computer and his homophobic roommate logs on, that controversy may well look like a church social in comparison.
[Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that a marketing technology company called Netmining performs retargeting based on sexual orientation. The company’s marketing manager informed EDGE after publication that "this is something we cannot do, nor would we ever do it."]
This story is part of our special report titled "HomoTech." Want to read more? Here's the full list.