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Facebook's Advertisers Think You're Gay -- Not That There's Anything Wrong With That

Facebook thinks you're gay, in denial, and will force you out of the closet to its advertisers, if a study of how the social network fails to handle privacy issues is to be believed. The main concern is that Facebook allows advertisers to serve different ads to gay users than straight ones, allegedly based on the gender users select on the "Interested in ..." profile questionnaire.

Many ads -- such as job recuitment services -- don't ostensibly have anything to do with sexual orientation but because employers tend to ask how you heard about the vacancy, answering "I saw an ad on Facebook" would automatically inform your new boss which team you're batting for.

It's comically worse when you consider just how bad Facebook is at identifying who's gay and who isn't. You'd think that by cross-checking the gender and "Interested in ..." selection of its users it would be easy to sort the goats from the gay goats. But a brief search reveals that's not so:

Albany Lawyer: So I'm a little worried that Facebook keeps showing me this ad. Am I gay and I just didn't know it?

Yahoo! Answers: I'm listed as straight -- why gay ads? Why are the ads displayed on the left hand side of the Facebook sometimes for gay dating/tv? I listed myself as interested in the opposite sex, and nothing in my profile says the word "gay" on it. How do I stop this?

Boinkology: "I really have no idea why Facebook thinks I'm gay. All of my sidebar ads are for these kind of things. Facebook should just check orientation. Mine says straight, right after it says I'm a male. Yet I get this ad, 'Gayborhood' and so many other ads littering my sidebar all the time. Talk about a deterrent to be on Facebook at work!"

Facebook even has a couple of protest pages (that virtually no one has joined) of users complaining about the way Facebook thinks they're gay, even when they insist that they're not:
I am not gay and I don't want to be continually asked if I want to take a peek at a guy, do you?
On one level, the idea that Facebook is wrongly convinced that many of its users are gay is hilarious. It's the Web 2.0 version of the Seinfeld episode which coined the phrase, "not that there's anything wrong with that" (video below).

On another, however, it could be dangerous. The company is already being sued for potentially outing its users based on the advertising they were served:

David Gould and Mike Robertson allege that from February until May, Facebook leaked a host of data about users who clicked on ads via the referrer headers, which allegedly transmitted enough data to marketers that they could identify the people who landed on advertisers' sites after clicking ads on Facebook.
[The complaint alleges:] "For example, if a Facebook user who was gay and struggling to come out of the closet was viewing the Facebook page of a gay support group, and then clicked on an ad, the advertiser would know the exact identity of that person, and that s/he was viewing the Facebook page of a gay support group just before navigating to their site."
Thus Facebook's advertising client base has created a new way to make life difficult for homosexuals, by linking them to the businesses they are interested in (such as the Honda hybrid CR-Z, apparently). The threat is real, because that's one way in which homophobes select their victims: By walking into gay businesses on the assumption that everyone inside must also be gay. Now employers can be sure not to hire gay men and women, and advertisers can be sure not to serve them, by differentiating their Facebook advertising. Yes, I know I'm exaggerating -- I mean, who would bother? -- but the potential is there.


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