CYBERSPACE — Citing concern over such portals being an online hunting ground for sexual predators and other criminals, lawmakers in a half-dozen states are considering new laws mandating the performance of criminal background checks by online dating sites, among other provisions, according to a report in the National Law Journal.Although New York already has a law on its books that regulates “social referral services,” that law amounts to a series of measures designed to prevent fraud on the part of dating services, both online and offline. The laws under consideration in California, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia are ostensibly designed to improve the safety and security of dating site use.
The proposed legislation varies from state to state, with some legislatures seeking to require criminal background checks of site members by dating sites, and other states considering a measure that would require dating sites to post a warning to their users if they do not perform such background checks.
Attorney Markham Erickson told the Journal that the variations in state laws are one reason why such legislation will likely not fly with the courts, noting that it would be “nearly impossible for a dating service to put state boundaries around the service and comply with a patchwork of state laws.”
Attorney Michael Marin, who is representing MySpace in a lawsuit involving a 14 year-old who claims she was sexually assaulted by someone she met through the social networking site, told the Journal there’s no reason for a law mandating such measures, as consumers have other options, should they choose to have background checks done.
Marin noted that currently, if a consumer meets someone online “you can go and pay for a background check. There’s no reason to mandate that.”
Marin added that such background checks “would create a false sense of security and create a liability for the online dating company,” by creating the impression that a person who has passed their background check has received “some sort of stamp of approval.”
Some lawmakers counter that something must be done, and argue that the risk is clear, and the proposed measures are reasonable.
“It’s like the wild, wild west out there,” said Alan Cropsey, a Michigan State Senator who has co-sponsored legislation that would require dating services to perform routine background checks on their members.
“When somebody goes online and says, ‘I’m so and so,’” added Cropsey, “they ought to be able to check and say ‘Hey, is this name popping up anywhere as far as being a sex offender or a domestic violence offender?’”
Critics from within the industry have noted that one particular competitor in the dating market has been pushing for such laws, because the requirements dovetail nicely with that company’s marketing strategy.
Last year Herb Vest, the chief executive for True.com – a dating service that performs criminal background checks and checks on the marriage status of its members – made a public push in support of mandating background checks, and asserted that such legislation would “save lives and prevent rapes, robberies and assaults.”
“I believe this (law) raises the bar on the industry,” Vest said in March 2005, according to an article posted on TechWeb.com, “and it would bring many more single people, currently not using online-dating services, into our industry, once it’s perceived as safe.”
Kristin Kelly, the senior director of public relations for Match.com, countered that the proposed law Vest spoke in support of was “special-interest legislation whereby you are taking a market differentiator of a particular company, and, through legislation, enforcing it on the rest of us.”
Kelly added that the legislation was a “poor solution in search of a problem.”