Internet Dating Bill Passes Illinois House – But it Does More Harm than Good

March 30, 2012

A new piece of legislation designed to increase safety of online daters passed by a vote of 83-26 in the Illinois House Thursday. The legislation, HB4083, would require all internet dating services operating in Illinois to show whether or not they conduct background checks on their members.

According to Stltoday, one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Michelle Mussman said the purpose of the bill is to help usersbecome more savvy and take better steps to protect yourselves” from sophisticated online predators. “A lot of them aren’t just another nice guy looking to meet a nice girl. This is a predator looking for prey,” Mussman said. “They’re going to look for somebody who’s vulnerable and they’re going to trick you into revealing information about yourself that they can use to their advantage.”

Opposing the legislation on grounds that it overreaches the state’s legislative responsibility. State Rep. Jim Durkin, R-LaGrange, said adults should be responsible for their own safety when using online dating services, reports Stltoday. “If they’re going to participate in this type of social networking, they have responsibilities to perform their own due diligence. This is overstepping what is necessary,” Durkin said.

Adding to the dissent, State Rep. Dennis Reboletti joined in calling the protective disclaimer unnecessary. And he gets to the core of my concern when he said, People go on dates all the time without the aid of Match.com or True.com and we don’t have any requirements for those individuals. Websites providing disclaimers revealing that they conduct background checks could do more harm than help. “What if people lie? Now we have the situation where we think there’s a background check and all the information is validated but in reality it isn’t. Aren’t we actually giving people a false sense of security?”

Mussman countered this objection by saying there will always be people who manage to fool background checks. “Any sort of background check is never a full proof method, Mussman said. “We’re not going to catch every single person, but not being able to catch everybody is not a reason to not take any step forward.”

4 reasons this legislation should not pass

While the goal of protecting online daters sounds good, the problems this legislation create are significant and the gain dubious.

  1. Dangerously false sense of security – Most background checks will not reveal a problem.For example, less than 10% of sexual predators are ever caught and convicted for their crimes – so even if a background check caught every registered sex offender, the sense of safety users felt would be dangerously false. Add to this that most stalkers, swindlers, etc. aren’t caught and the enormity of the misrepresentation of safety becomes apparent.The best any dating website can do is to say that the site cannot guarantee that daters will not behave badly, that users must use caution when meeting anyone – whether they met online or offline, and provide clearly discoverable safety guidelines for users to follow.
  2. Falsely banning legitimate users. Many background checks have inaccurate ‘false negative’ information. Consumers do not have access to see the information pulled about them in background checks, and are therefore unable to challenge or correct information that inaccurately claims negative behavior. People with the same or similar names for example may have ‘data bleeding’ where the information from one person negatively impacts another. In other cases victims of identity theft may appear to be someone with a criminal record when in fact it was the thief who committed the crime, not the innocent victim.
  3. Places an unreasonable burden on online dating companies.  I’m not a lawyer, but this legislation would seem to favor dating sites that claim they perform background checks – essentially forcing others to perform the same checks to compete, in spite of the issues just highlighted with background checks. Additionally, it would seem to open the dating sites to increased risk of lawsuits by any user who comes to harm from contact through the site with any form of criminal – rapist, swindler, stalker, etc.
  4. The false sense of trust gives criminals greater freedom. The implied safety assurance that a prominent notice that ‘our users have been screened’ sends would be a godsend to criminals of every ilk as it means users would be less likely to remain vigilant against their exploits.

In other words, while on the surface the legislation sounds like motherhood and apple pie, in reality it makes online dating a potentially more dangerous endeavor.

If you want greater safety for online daters, encourage sites to provide excellent safety materials so users are armed with the skills and knowledge they need to protect themselves, and encourage sites to have strong moderation to be watching for issues and to respond to issues raised by their members.

Linda


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