California Attorney General Kamala Harris recently announced an agreement with three of the largest online dating sites: eHarmony, Match.com and Spark Networks (parent company of JDate and ChristianMingle, among others). In much the same way Facebook reached an agreement regarding child safety with AG’s nationwide in 2008, it appears the dating sites agreed to some voluntary measures under pressure from AG Harris’s office rather than in response to any specific allegations that the services broke any laws. This action can be traced back to a widely publicized incident in 2011 in which a Southern California woman was attacked by a man she met on Match.com who turned out to be a registered sex offender.
In the agreement, which is called a “Joint Statement of Key Principles of Online Dating Safety,” the three major service providers agreed to the following:
- Provide safety and fraud prevention tips, along with periodic reminders to users.
- Display links to the safety tips from the homepage, on member communication pages, and/or in the footer on some or all Web pages.
Online Safety Tools:
- Employ a “rapid abuse reporting system” that acknowledges receipt of any consumer concerns or complaints received.
- Review profiles of members in an effort to identify fake profiles that may be used to perpetuate financial scams.
- Use tools and technologies to identify sexual predators, including checking sex offender registries when the providers possess the requisite information to conduct such checks, and, when identified, remove registered sexual predators from participating in fee-based services on their websites
- Not promote or publicize sex offender screening tools in a manner intended to lead members to assume that due to the providers’ use of these tools, meeting people online is any safer than meeting people any other way — i.e., avoid creating a false sense of security.
- Remind users that they bear responsibility for their own safety.
Cooperation with Law Enforcement:
- The AG will assign a liaison from the eCrime Unit to address any concerns about potential criminal conduct that providers may have.
- The AG and providers will continue to work together to ensure that law enforcement officials can quickly investigate and prosecute criminal conduct in California involving the providers’ websites.
The items of greatest substance are in the “Online Safety Tools” section. The statement includes language acknowledging that it does not create any new rights of legal action or enforcement against online dating service providers. Nevertheless, AG Harris stated in the release, “In the interest of protecting and educating users, I strongly encourage all online dating companies to adopt the same principles as these industry leaders.“
Why am I writing about this at all, given that it’s non-binding and only directly concerns three companies? In the grand scheme of things, as articulated by AG Harris in her quote above, I think this agreement raises the bar for what will likely come to be considered the industry norm for user safety precautions in online dating. (California tends to be a bellwether when it comes to Internet regulation; it is the largest single online population in the United States and also houses a large number of Internet and wireless companies.) For any company hit with a lawsuit, large or small, being able to testify that it follows these principles could help defeat certain claims of negligence by showing the service meets the standard of care established by the largest players in the industry. Conversely, any company that is not doing these things would presumably be put on the defensive in any litigation, forced to defend its failure to do “X” when site “Y” has been doing X for years.
The agreement is silent on the subject of mobile apps, which seems like an unfortunate oversight. Without any guidance directly aimed at mobile dating and social apps, I would argue the parallels are clear enough that app makers should assume they will be held up to a similar standard sooner or later. The disclosure aspects could be trickier with a mobile UI that offers less display room to work with.
The good news is that most of the items are common-sense measures that many of the largest online dating sites already had in place prior to the agreement — or, if not already in place, can be implemented at minimal cost. For example, as I pointed out in my post about Path, there is really no excuse for a social site that encourages people to meet offline not to have some kind of “Safety Tips” information somewhere on the site, and a link to that page in the footer where it can be accessed from anywhere on the site.