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Gay rights travel flap snares Microsoft, Yahoo

Microsoft and Yahoo find themselves at odds with the $17 billion-a-year international gay travel market as a result of a promotional contest.

Trouble has come to the island paradise of Jamaica in the form of a thorny gay rights controversy, and Internet giants Microsoft and Yahoo have landed right in the middle of it.

Microsoft's MSN Expedia travel site and two sites offering promotions through Yahoo offered a sweepstakes promising a "romantic getaway" for two at the Sandals resort in Jamaica.

The trouble for Yahoo and Microsoft, however, is that Sandals resorts only accommodate heterosexual couples. That policy threatened to put Microsoft, Yahoo, and Yahoo's promotional partners at odds with the $17 billion-a-year international gay travel market--not to mention local and state antidiscrimination laws.

The firms offering the Sandals promotion through Yahoo were GreatFlowers.com and Fragrance Counter.

Expedia removed its links to the promotion and to Sandals, and is reviewing its relationship with the resort chain. Alerted to the controversy today, Yahoo notified GreatFlowers.com, which asked Yahoo to remove the links to Sandals. Yahoo has not yet been able to contact Fragrance Counter.

Microsoft and Yahoo immediately sought to distance themselves from Sandals' discriminatory practices.

"Microsoft was not aware of the policy or of the language in the Sandals promotion," the company said in a statement. "Upon learning of their policies, we responded immediately to have the promotion removed from the site.

"We are also removing the direct link on MSN Expedia to the site with discriminatory practices," the firm added. "Microsoft, as a company, has undertaken a number of initiatives to foster diversity within its own organization, and demonstrates this commitment on an ongoing basis in communities nationwide."

Yahoo spokesperson Diane Hunt similarly defended her company.

"We were not aware of Sandals' policy, and nowhere in the terms and conditions of the prize did it state any discriminatory practices against same-sex couples," she said. "As soon as we found out about this, we notified our clients. GreatFlowers said they were as appalled as we were and asked us to remove the links. Currently, they're determining a way to come up with another prize."

Hunt noted that Yahoo did not have the legal authority to pull down the promotions without the permission of their clients, GreatFlowers and Fragrance Counter.

Sandals did not immediately return phone calls, but one Sandals employee reached this afternoon defended his company, pointing out that Sandals operates a number of hotels and resorts with various restrictions. The Poinciana resort and two others under the Beaches brand permit same-sex couples. The remaining ten, under the Sandals name, do not.

"The company doesn't have an antigay policy," said the employee, who asked not to be named. "Sandals Resorts is aimed at a particular market. I don't think that by itself should be looked at as a discriminatory thing. We have different packages and vacations that are aimed at different markets."

However one characterizes Sandals' overall product offering, legal experts take a dim view of the promotions Microsoft and Yahoo offered online.

"As far as I know, there hasn't yet been a case brought like this," said Art Spitzer, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. "So I don't think anyone can say for sure what the law would be. But it seems to me that if a company doing business in a jurisdiction that prohibits discrimination offers a sweepstakes that could be collected by women but not men, or men but not women, or blacks but not whites--it seems to me that that would constitute a violation."

Microsoft had offered its promotion in conjunction with its partner, the Online Vacation Mall. When site user Kirby Frank noticed the male-female couple requirement, he notified online advocacy group Wired Strategies, which issued a press release and archived the Expedia page with the heterosexual-couples-only restriction.

The news was first reported by USA Today.

Other contest sponsors include U.S. Airways and Online Vacation Mall partner Travelocity.