Scruff's Latest Update: Fighting Gay App Racism

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Scruff recently implemented two significant updates.

As of August 17, the gay dating app, which has over 12 million members in 180 countries, has removed all programmatic advertising; it also no longer requires users to list their race or ethnicity.

The first change means that Scruff will not display third-party ads from companies like Google's AdMob and Twitter's MoPub. These ads are automated by targeting specific demographics like the gay community, using data provided by the app.

Instead, Scruff's advertising will focus on partnerships with LGBTQ nonprofits, health, and advocacy groups, as well as lifestyle and travel companies.

In an interview with The Advocate over email, Eric Silverberg, CEO and cofounder of Scruff, said its change in advertising came about in part to increase the security of user data.

"Scruff members can be assured that their data will be used only to help them meet and connect with other guys, not to target shady advertising for products or apps nobody would want or use anyway," Silverberg said. "Though this decision will cost Scruff revenue in the short-term, we believe it is the right long-term decision because it creates the best experience for our community."

The European Union's General Data Protection Regulation, which gives users more control over their personal data and how it is exported, was another reason for the advertising update. The regulation, which went into effect May 2018, made it "impossible" for Scruff to continue programmatic advertising in Europe, Silverberg said.

"Because Scruff is global, we wanted to ensure that we could apply a consistent set of policies worldwide," Silverberg said. "Our members entrust us with deeply personal and sensitive information, and it didn’t feel ethical for us to hold U.S. users to a different, arguably lower standard of privacy than E.U. users."

Security over user data on gay apps had made headlines several times this year. Grindr, a Scruff competitor, came under fire in April after a report revealed it was sharing sensitive user data like HIV status with third-party vendors. It has since ceased this practice.

Additionally, in March, a man named Trever Faden exposed flaws in Grindr's security, after he created a third-party site called C*ckblocked. The website ostensibly allowed Grindr users to see who blocked them by entering their Grindr log-in and password to C*ckblocked. In doing so, Faden could access those users' unread messages, email addresses, deleted photos, and location data.

Giving away users' locations is dangerous, but especially in homophobic nations where some gay and bi men are entrapped through gay dating apps. Grindr has since taken steps to correct these flaws and cautioned users not to share account information or password with third parties.

To heighten security, Silverberg also said Scruff will no longer consider an integration with Facebook — by allowing a login through a Facebook account, for example — due to the controversy surrounding reports of how Cambridge Analytica mined information from the social media service to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

In terms of the second change, Scruff will now only require users to share their name, email, and birthday — ethnicity and all other profile fields are optional. Why? Silverberg said that "what people are comfortable sharing changes, both as you use the app more and as social and cultural expectations evolve."

"We recognize that the queer community of color faces discrimination and racism as part of their regular lives," he said. "It is why Scruff is the only platform that vigorously enforces its community guidelines to ensure that harassment, racism and abuse doesn’t happen, and if it does it is dealt with swiftly."

Silverberg said Scruff is also planning other initiatives to create a "safe, affirming, and fun digital space" for queer people of color, although he did not reveal specifics.

This change comes about as gay dating apps are facing increased scrutiny for their role in combating racism, transphobia, and body-shaming from users on their platforms. Grindr, which has received criticism for this issue, is planning to launch an initiative, Kindr, later this month to encourage users to "play nice."

"Our upcoming 'Kindr' initiative, which is built around education, awareness and specific policy changes in the Grindr app, will serve as the first step of many Grindr will be taking to help foster a more inclusive and respectful community on our platform," Landen Zumwalt, Grindr's head of communications, told The Advocate. Grindr also does not require users to list their ethnicity.

When asked about Kindr, Silverberg said, "Scruff has always had zero tolerance for abuse on its app, and diligently removes these kinds of accounts to create a safe platform for its users."

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