The not-so-rose-colored world of online dating
Belarus is all about human rights. To prove it, they've recently passed some legislation to halt human trafficking in the country, which sounds like an excellent idea. How are they going to do it, you ask? Simple - they'll be restricting online dating and matchmaking websites, which they claim facilitate human sex trafficking. The same bill also wants to "protect" students by requiring them to obtain permission to leave the country for more than thirty days.
"The measures are directed at improving the mechanisms guaranteeing effective counteraction to human trafficking - one of the most dangerous phenomena modern society faces in its development," First Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Shurko said.Though this may in fact do some good, it's hard to take anything that a country like Belarus says about human rights with a straight face. The US government this year lumped the country and its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko (who, like all good democrats, just pushed through a measure to do away with presidential term limits) into a group with Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Burma as "outposts of tyranny."
But online dating is not contentious only on the frozen plains of Minsk; various state governments in the US are also mulling laws to regulate it. The most recent proposal making the rounds in California, Virginia, Ohio, Texas, Florida, Michigan, and Ohio concerns background checks. Specifically, should the state require online dating services to prominently notify customers about their background check policy?
The ruckus started in 2004 when online dating site True.com began touting their policy of running background checks on every customer to hopefully ensure a safe dating experience. The company then wrote legislation that they hawked to lawmakers in various states that would require all online dating services to notify their customers if they perform background checks or not. Of course, none of the other sites do (because of issues like accuracy of data, time, and price), so this would amount to a legally enforced competitive advantage for True.com. So far, none of the states considering the measure have passed it, though True has managed to find a number of state legislators who support the idea in principle. Rep. John Bradley, a Democratic member of the state legislature in Illinois, plans to introduce similiar legislation of his own in January.
"It seems like a common-sense thing," he says. "Internet dating isn't the same as going out to a social gathering. You can meet a large number of people very quickly. There aren't any types of precautions. ...We have to do as much as we can to protect people from predators."
Match.com, a rival dating service, claims that such checks are not ultimately helpful, pointing to a True.com lawsuit against a man who denied he was a felon but ultimately turned out to be a convicted sex offender. True's background check didn't catch the conviction, though the company does say that it rejects 5 percent of all applicants after screening. Says Herb Vest, True's CEO,
"I can't promise criminals that they can't get on [the site]. But if I find them, they're going to wish they hadn't."
Speaking of "wishing they hadn't," several lawsuits against online dating services are currently wending their way through the American court system. Unhappy customers are claiming that they were duped into remaining with Match.com and Yahoo Personals - and shelling out more cash - when both sites engaged in dirty tricks to keep the subscriptions coming in.
Matthew Evans, a thirtysomething professional from Orange County, Calif., accuses Match.com of sending him fake romantic emails to goad him into subscription renewal. He alleges that employees read his emails and tailored responses to invent the "perfect match." Worse yet, Evans says the company hired a beautiful woman named Autumn Marzec to go on a date with him. The lawsuit claims that Match.com "employs 'date bait' teams to hoodwink subscribers," and that these staffers fake dates up to 100 times a month.
Having a company hire a beautiful woman to go out with you doesn't actually seem like grounds for a lawsuit, but one can see Evans' point. The Yahoo case is similar, in that Yahoo is accused of posting fake profiles of attractive singles to boost traffic. Both companies claim innocence, and Match.com claims that is has an affidavit from Autumn Marzec in which she swears that she was not employed by the website. If the lawsuits have merit, they could tarnish the image of online dating, which has seen its numbers flatten after several years of explosive growth (and just as these sites have overcome the biggest hurdle of all - people not wanting to meet someone on the Internet). Will the US need to follow Belarus's lead and regulate online dating more heavily?