Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Last week, Tinder announced that it was adding some new safety features to its app, including a panic button to call for help and a photo-verification tool. Match, which owns Tinder, plans to unveil the features on its other dating services later this year.
While these are well-intended efforts to make online dating safer, they’re not enough.
A recent report released by Columbia Journalism Investigations and ProPublica studying over 150 sexual assaults tied to dating apps revealed that dating sites are well aware that convicted sex offenders are using their platforms — and have done far too little about it.
The reports make clear that tech companies have not taken sufficient measures to protect their users from abuse. It’s time for the government to step in and require these companies to start conducting background checks on all of their users.
The Columbia Journalism Investigations and ProPublica report found that users are being assaulted by people they have met on dating sites who are known sexual offenders, and in some cases have been accused of raping other women they met on dating sites. The dating app companies themselves acknowledge offenders can use their products: A spokesperson for Match Group — which owns the dating apps Match, Tinder, OkCupid and Plenty of Fish — told Columbia Journalism Investigations that “there are definitely registered sex offenders on our free products.”
The company also told ProPublica and Columbia that it takes its users’ safety seriously, and that “a relatively small amount of the tens of millions of people using one of our dating services have fallen victim to criminal activity by predators.” It also said, “We believe any incident of misconduct or criminal behavior is one too many.” Match did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.
We need a federal law mandating that apps that match people with the expectation of an in-person meeting — whether for a ride, a home repair, a date or a platonic meetup — be required to check their users, including passengers, against criminal databases at least twice per year and block violent criminals.
According to the report, after a woman filed a lawsuit and said she was sexually assaulted by a man she met on Match who had been convicted of sexual assault six times before, the site agreed to conduct checks against state offender lists in 2011 — but the Match Group doesn’t do so on its other sites.
A spokesperson for Match Group told ProPublica and Columbia’s reporters that background checks may create “a false sense of security” since registries might have out-of-date or incomplete information. Users could also elide the system by creating fake identities. Of course, users could also commit their first crimes while on the respective apps, so it’s always important to be cautious when meeting strangers.
It’s true that background checks are not a panacea. And apps certainly can’t be held accountable for everything their users claim. Indeed, under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, social platforms aren’t viewed as publishers, and therefore aren’t considered legally liable for what their users post. But that shouldn’t prevent their responsibility for taking basic steps that could help prevent lethal dangers to their users. And since this report suggests that some of the assaults that have taken place on apps could have been prevented if they conducted background checks and did a better job of blocking criminals, it is incumbent that apps be required to screen their users.
The Match Group has also argued that such checks are expensive. But if there were a federal law requiring apps to conduct such checks, law enforcement agencies could be mandated to provide sites with data from criminal databases for free.
Until the government steps in and forces them to get with the program, it’s up to users to make their opinions known by refusing to use apps that don’t take stronger measures to protect them.