Can Google and Facebook Push Adultery Sites Off the Internet?

Noel Biderman, the man behind the wildly successful AshleyMadison.com, is helping to facilitate extra-marital affairs. Microsoft, Google, and Facebook want no part of it. Crying censorship, Biderman is fighting back.

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Noel Biderman is infamous for owning the site that helps married people have affairs, AshleyMadison.com. But he doesn't publicize the fact that he also owns six other niche dating sites--CougarLife.com, which hooks older women up with younger guys; ManCrunch.com, which pairs gay men; Swappernet.com, which matches swingers; and others--for fear that the sites will suffer in the pall of Ashley Madison controversy. Last week BusinessWeek's cover story, "Cheating, Incorporated," covered the wild success of Ashley Madison as well as the lengths to which Biderman goes to defend his site. But lately, Biderman has been fighting a battle on several fronts, trying to protect his other properties' ability to advertise as Ashley Madison ads are systematically yanked off TV and the Web.

"The Facebooks of the world feel the need to be these bastions of morality. I just find it hard to believe we want them making decisions for us."

Since Biderman, 39, took out a billboard in Beverly Hills advertising the cheating site in 2007, he's become both a de facto expert on infidelity and a scapegoat for failed marriages. And getting lambasted in public is only good for business: When Sean Hannity attacked him on-air last spring, Ashley Madison received 20,000 hits per second and nearly crashed. Because of his site's impressive growth--Ashley Madison has 8.5 million members and at least 12 million monthly visitors, making it, Biderman believes, the fastest growing social network after Facebook--Biderman was content to just accept that people hated him. But then media giants like Facebook, Google, ABC and Fox went after his businesses, refusing his ads, pulling his Super Bowl commercials and even blocking Facebook messages containing "AshleyMadison.com."

Biderman and his wife, who have two young children and live in Biderman's hometown of Toronto, believe they have been unfairly vilified (the BusinessWeek story described Biderman as "possibly evil"). Now they are done biting their tongues: They are sick of people making assumptions about their personal sex life, they are sick of getting hate mail, and they are especially worried about what they see as a growing censorship crisis in the U.S. "People think that if they eradicate Ashley Madison, they'll eradicate infidelity," Biderman says. "Companies like Google and Microsoft are playing Big Brother and they're not telling you what you're doing. It's almost like, if Noel touched it, they censor it."

It started at the company's inception in 2002: TV networks balked at his business concept when Biderman tried to buy ad spots. Still, Ashley Madison ads were permitted opposite programs like Jerry Springer and on ESPN. Then in 2007, Microsoft's MSN.com stopped letting Ashley Madison advertise and buy keywords, which it had done since 2002. Bing, which is also owned by Microsoft, followed the same policy. MSN and Bing won't even let Biderman buy the words "Ashley Madison," which Biderman trademarked. "If you type in the world 'infidelity' on Bing but Bing pretends that Ashley Madison doesn't exist, they're redefining the word," Biderman says. He says that MSN told him it was a "policy of one: my company and my company alone." Other cheating sites began buying the same keywords on MSN and Bing and using Ashley Madison's tagline: "Life is short. Have an affair." Biderman complained to Microsoft, but the company continued selling ads and keywords to the competing sites. There was nothing Biderman could do. On March 3, Microsoft will officially change its trademark policy, further reducing Biderman's negotiating power. "It will continue to investigate complaints about trademarks in advertising text but will no longer investigate complaints about trademarks used as keywords on Bing and Yahoo! Search," a Microsoft spokesperson said.

The other media giants followed Microsoft's lead. In 2009, ESPN stopped running Ashley Madison ads, which it had aired since 2002. When ABC premiered the show Cougar Town starring Courtney Cox, Biderman pushed to advertise CougarLife.com but ABC refused. Then NBC asked Ashley Madison if it would be interested in creating a commercial to run during the 2009 Super Bowl. Ashley Madison hesitated--it was a big investment that would be wasted if the company encountered more obstacles--but eventually made the ad. Before the big game, the NFL refused to air the expensive commercial. Instead, it ran locally on NBC in certain parts of Texas.

So last year, when CBS had broadcast rights to the Super Bowl and Biderman was preparing to launch his new dating service for gay men, ManCrunch.com, he had another choice to make. "I knew there was zero chance that CBS was going to accept an ad for a same-sex dating site," Biderman says. Man Crunch wasn't even live yet, but Biderman saw another publicity opportunity: "We thought, 'Let's just do one of these ads that we know will get rejected,'" he says. They shot the whole commercial in 25 minutes. When CBS refused it, Biderman's company posted it all over YouTube and the Web, tagging it as the "banned Super Bowl commercial." When Fox, which aired the Super Bowl this year, approached Ashley Madison about creating an ad for the 2011 game, Biderman knew there was little chance it would air. Still, the company created the commercial, which Biderman calls "very tame." When it was rejected, Ashley Madison used the same surefire marketing strategy, posting the "banned" ad all over the Internet.

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Last fall, Facebook, which Biderman already paid $300,000 to advertise Cougar Life, told Biderman it would no longer run his ads. A spokesperson for Facebook says it does not have a "broad ban on 'cougar' ads but dating ads have specific targeting restrictions and cannot be "overtly provocative or sexual." Facebook has never accepted Ashley Madison ads. Still, Biderman takes particular issue with Facebook because he feels that the company is hypocritical, refusing his ads while enabling "sexual dalliances" in the same way for which Ashley Madison is criticized. But Biderman refutes one contention in BusinessWeek's story: "I'm not obsessed with Facebook," he says. He was angry, however, to discover recently that Facebook messages containing the URL AshleyMadison.com were blocked, immediately presenting users with an error message below. Facebook says it temporarily blocked messages containing AshleyMadison.com because the URL was distributed in a spam campaign on the site, although it would not confirm whether the company had been involved. Messages containing the address were blocked as of Monday afternoon but re-enabled the following night after this reporter contacted Facebook for comment.

Presented by

Jen Wieczner is a journalist based in New York City. She has written for the Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, SmartMoney, Fast Company, New York and other publications. Find her at jenwieczner.com and on Twitter @jenwieczner.

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