Modern Romance Hinges on Dating App Self-Regulation

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Scholar proposes that the dating app industry adopt a self-regulatory model to promote user safety.

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Across the world, over 300 million people use dating apps to find love. But for some dating app users, their searches for love have ended in sexual assault and murder.

In a forthcoming article, Marissa C. Meredith of Duquesne University highlights the dangers of online dating and argues that firms in the industry are not being held accountable when their platforms help dangerous individuals match with their future victims. She proposes ways that dating app companies can self-regulate to ensure that they are providing safe online dating platforms.

Meredith analogizes the online dating industry, which makes $3 billion in annual revenue, to international marriage brokerage (IMB) firms, which provide “dating, matrimonial, matchmaking services, or social referrals.” She explains that federal laws have been adopted to regulate IMBs because of the rise in domestic violence in the relationships that IMBs helped form. Yet unlike IMBs, dating apps face limited federal and state regulation despite the rapidly expanding dating app industry and prevalent violence caused by dating app usage.

Meredith points to numerous examples of recent dating app-related offenses, including a man’s arrest in 2018 for murder. Authorities later uncovered seven other murders committed by the same offender—all of which followed from the offender also meeting his victims on dating apps.

Meredith notes that, although dating apps provided the offender with a platform to meet all his victims, the dating app companies faced no legal repercussions. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online publishers from liability for content posted by users on their platforms, effectively prevents dating app companies from being held responsible if they allow dangerous individuals onto their platforms.

Meredith argues that, because of Section 230 protection, dating app companies have no legal incentive to implement safeguards to prevent harmful users from using their apps to find potential victims.

Furthermore, Section 230 immunity prevents states from requiring dating app companies to require specific safety precautions, such as background checks. Some states have passed internet dating safety legislation, such as New Jersey’s Internet Dating Safety Act. This law, however, merely requires dating apps to notify their users “clearly and conspicuously” if their platform does not conduct criminal background checks. Dating apps frequently bury these notices in their terms and conditions, which often go unread by users and are ineffective, Meredith contends.

As long as Section 230 blocks more stringent federal and state regulation of the dating app industry, Meredith proposes a self-regulatory framework with uniform safety guidelines for all online dating companies. Meredith argues that a self-regulatory approach may be a better way of regulating this industry—as opposed to federal regulation—because slow congressional action cannot keep pace with the rapidly changing online dating sector.

Some apps have already taken steps to provide a safer online dating experience, but Meredith argues that the lack of a uniform safety protocol across all apps allows offenders to switch between multiple dating apps. She highlights an incident in which a young woman reported a man for sexual assault on Bumble, a popular dating app, but months later she found her assaulter’s profile on other dating apps, such as Tinder and Hinge.

Meredith’s solution for this inconsistency is to create an organization made up of representatives from dating app companies. She proposes that this organization can consult with industry stakeholders to identify the common issues that users encounter across apps and create comprehensive safety policies for all online dating companies to adopt.

Meredith argues that a self-regulatory organization could require dating app companies to take measures to prevent dangerous individuals from making online dating accounts, such as screening all users for violent offenses.

She also suggests that dating apps should incorporate a rating system similar to the one often used by ride-sharing companies. This system would prompt users to give their matches ratings based on their encounters, which would allow the platform to quickly flag individuals that should be removed from the app. In addition, companies should notify the other dating apps so that they can also remove the user, Meredith argues.

Meredith also urges dating app companies to release regular safety reports to their users. She argues that these reports should outline safety incidents that have been reported on their apps, what the apps did to resolve the issues, and detail any changes that the apps will need to make to prevent future issues from occurring. Meredith argues that not only would this practice promote greater transparency to dating app users, but it would also help ensure that the individual apps are complying with safety policies set forth by the industry’s self-regulatory organization.

Meredith contends that a self-regulatory organization would help promote better communication between different apps and ultimately protect users across all online dating platforms. Until then, many unfortunate victims will not get the fairytale love stories they hoped for, she concludes.