OpEd :: Does Facebook single out LGBT users?
Very soon after Facebook got its facelift, which it dubbed as the "new Facebook," I started seeing users amassing in Facebook groups of thousands to lobby the corporation to change things back to the way they looked. This collective effort occurred only a few days after Facebook switched to a new layout in early September.
I don’t like how things look either. What my inertia is against, however, is not anything cosmetic. Like other LGBT-identified user on Facebook, I have been flooded lately with advertisements showing guys in Speedos and guys making out. My allies, on the other hand, seldom see such ads.
It turns out that Facebook has started selling ad space to advertisers who want to focus exclusively on LGBT users. Facebook made this sly change earlier this year. It added the options "men interested in men" and "women interested in women" to its ad-targeting system, which was setup in Sept. 2007 to tailor ads to users based on their profile information. There is no option, however, for advertisers to target bisexual or transgender users.
Advertisers may target LGBT users as young as 13 with this new option, even if their profiles are set to "private." This option can be used in concert with other criteria including state, city, country, education, workplace, relationship status, and pre-selected keywords found in user profiles. Advertisers can take advantage of these targeting criteria to collect personally identifiable information of LGBT individuals. This puts them at risk for stalking and targeted attacks, and minors are especially vulnerable under these circumstances.
When you, the Facebook user, click on an ad, you are taken from Facebook to the Web site that advertiser can setup. At that point, you are at their mercy. An advertiser has your IP address and he or she can search to find out your approximate physical location (probably within a radius of a few miles) and your Internet service provider. An advertiser can also know your operation system and the browser you are using.
This means if your computer is not fully secured with the latest updates and a robust firewall, an advertiser can hack into your computer, look through your files, and even take over control of it.
Of course, this applies to mainly online ads. What Facebook has made possible, however, is for advertisers to use the orientation criteria to pick out a small number of individuals to hone in on. As LGBT users are the minority on Facebook, not many of a specific age exist in any given geographical area. For example, Facebook identifies roughly 80 gay and lesbian users between 18 and 22 in Poughkeepsie, New York. The number of straight male and female users in Poughkeepsie is 8,100. This number decreases significantly for underage teens. Less than 20 gays and lesbians between 13 and 17 are on Facebook in Poughkeepsie, compared to 1,660 straight males and female in the same age bracket.
Facebook defers to federal law, which states it is legal to target ads to teens 13 and older. The American Academy of Pediatrics, Children Now, the Center for Digital Democracy and other advocacy groups have lobbied the Federal Trade Commission since April to raise the age threshold to 18, but to no avail.
Current law does not govern whether it is acceptable to target minors based on their sexual orientation. This means that in theory, if only one 13-year-old fits an advertiser’s targeting criteria based on sexual orientation, then the advertiser could target ads to just that user.
Ads targeted to minors, however, face more restrictions than those targeted to adults. They cannot involve alcoholic beverages, matchmaking, adult themes, contraception, sex education and health conditions. Facebook also screens ads that will be displayed to minors prior to launching them.
Still, this measure’s effectiveness is doubtful. During a test, Facebook approved an advertisement targeted specifically to LGBT minors involving adult-themed keywords. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald in Sept. 2007 reported an ad that contained a picture of a topless female model also slipped onto Facebook. And even though Facebook does screen the Web site an ad leads to, the site could change to include offensive content later on.
The seemingly trivial addition of sexual orientation as an ad targeting criteria has, in reality, extensive consequences for LGBT users of all ages. It also breeches Facebook’s promise against allowing advertisers to target individual users. To me, this sly change from Facebook is actually far more drastic than any of its cosmetic changes, and far more worth the lobbying efforts of its users.