To date, government involvement in regulation of dating apps has been minimal. Big tech has largely been protected from liability for their users’ actions based on the continued upholding of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The amendment, enacted in 1996, states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider,” — shielding dating apps from legal responsibility for any communication, and ultimately from any harm their users might cause one another. Beyond section 230, regulatory laws vary by state, and recently implemented legislation has required little from apps beyond providing clarity on whether or not they provide background checks (Connecticut General Assembly).
According to Edelman’s 2023 Trust Barometer, business is the only institution seen as both competent and ethical, and respondents believe that businesses and governments must work together to strengthen society. However, when it comes to online dating, dating businesses are failing to protect their users — responding to public pressure with stopgap safety measures that fundamentally fail their users in a number of ways:
Some dating apps do offer background checks, but users are largely responsible for covering the costs. Users are also encouraged to report inappropriate or harmful activity from other members. But according to a recent BBC survey, 47% of users who made complaints to dating sites were not happy with how they were handled. And overall, much of the communication related to apps’ safety is buried in fine print, ultimately leaving users to understand, and manage their own risk.
According to a recent study conducted by Shane Co. the average American will spend about eight months and view nearly 4,000 dating profiles before they find a partner. That’s a lot of time invested. And today, users are spending that time across an ever-expanding variety of apps developed to leverage new technologies, and appeal to diversified user preferences. Just a few examples from the past few years include Schmooze, which matches users based on their shared love of memes; Snack, where users create an avatar to go on dates for them; and Kippo, a dating app made by gamers, for gamers. While in the past, several apps dominated the dating market, today’s users choose from a far greater variety of apps, each with their own UX and safety protocols to navigate — making it increasingly complicated for users to manage their safety.
With background checks and identity verification neither automatic nor mandatory, safety standards in online dating seem to be more about risk reporting than prevention. Some apps have partnered with emergency response services like Noonlight, which acts as a virtual panic button, fast tracking requests to emergency services in case of an unsafe situation. In fact, an entire sub-industry has emerged based on the sadly obvious fact that individuals, rather than the industry itself, need to be responsible for their own safety — creating a culture that’s more about self-defense than safety. Defender Ring, as one example, offers a range of brass-knuckle-adjacent ‘self defense’ rings featuring a ‘5mm concealed blade weapon with sharp grinded edges and a pointed tip.” Their website also features an article entitled “31 Online Dating Safety Tips.”
According to a recent study by Pew research, six-in-ten Americans say companies should require background checks before someone creates a dating profile. Given the size of the online dating industry — estimated at $9.65 billion in 2022, and projected to reach $10.49 billion this year — it stands to reason that there is significant incentive for companies to integrate background checks, and additional user-friendly safety features like identity verification as an automatic feature in their user experience.
More than 40 million Americans currently use dating apps. Online dating is the most common way people in the US meet one another. The sheer scale and number of those interactions might make safety seem out of reach. But scale itself can be the answer to keeping users safe. The volume of collective data available to provide insight on users’ safety and behavior — when used ethically and responsibly — is a powerful tool that can help keep all users safe. The ability to safely and securely monitor interactions, in online dating and beyond, would allow for collective assessment and delivery of actionable safety insights based on real-life, real-time data.
However, to collectively assess and deliver actionable information based on this amount of data requires a collaborative effort and reciprocity that is not generally seen in a competitive business landscape. To facilitate change we must, as an industry, begin to start seeing this differently. To make a collective commitment as leaders, developers and marketers to prioritize the health and safety of the users we serve.
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