The outcome of yesterday’s hearing on an online dating bill is succinctly captured by this AP news article headline: New Jersey concedes Internet dating plan, yet pushes it anyway.
What? Legislators pass a bill through committee that they know is flawed?
Yes, if they think the sponsor will work to amend it. And The Internet Dating Safety Act (A-4304), the bill I testified against in Trenton yesterday, definitely needs to be fixed.
It’s not that anybody is against online dating safety. We just think that this bill, in its present form, will not create a safer environment for dating site users.
Here’s why. The bill has one particular serious flaw: it has the effect
(if not the intention) of promoting a flawed, unreliable, and incomplete
criminal screening method as a way to increase online dating safety.
Legislators should run away from any bill that promotes criminal screenings.
Intuitively, a criminal screening would sound like a good
idea. Who can be against more information about a potential date, especially
when it’s their criminal record? But if the information is no good, we have a
garbage-in, garbage-out situation that has the unintended consequence of
providing users of online dating sites with a false sense of security. Indeed,
criminal screenings are:
- Incomplete – criminal screenings can create false negatives when criminal records don’t appear or may not include felony arrests that were plead down to misdemeanors; and
- Not Inclusive – many counties don’t even report their criminal records to a publicly accessible central database. For instance, in Illinois only 4 out of 102 counties report to a centralized database accessible to companies that perform background screenings. Do we know what the database reporting situation is in New Jersey?
When I went to testify in Illinois, one member off a House Judiciary committee, an ex-FBI agent, understood the failures of screenings that are conducted with a name only. He differentiated criminal screenings with the more thorough and reliable background check (based on social security number, date of birth, fingerprints, employment history, etc.) and helped persuade his colleagues that a dating bill that promotes screenings would create more harm than good.
So what’s the better approach? Or to go back to first principles, do we need legislation in the first place? Nine other states that have considered this bill have not passed it, including such states as California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Texas and Virginia. These states recognize that the market is working to help provide the necessary information for the adults using this site to do so safely. All the major online dating sites, including Yahoo! Personals and Match.com, provide safety tips about communicating with strangers and face-to-face meetings.
Unfortunately, bills gain momentum even when they’re not needed. Originally, True.com–the one dating site that does provide criminal screenings–pushed these bills that help promote their business model. That’s because if you don’t provide screenings, you have to advertise this fact over and over, in 12 point font, on every member page, email and instant message between members, and on the registration page. But if you do criminal screenings, you can bury the failures of these screenings in small type font somewhere in the terms of service.(read this revealing NY Times article about the chicanery of True.com)
It’s disparate regulatory treatment against one way of doing business in favor of another. After all, consumers can choose to pay for and use a site that does conduct screenings, or he or she can choose not to. It all depends on the value proposition – or should, but regulation skews this value
proposition. Here’s how.
If consumers see a state mandated warning on the page of one
company that doesn’t do screenings, over and over again, they’re going to think
something is wrong. They’ll search out a site that does these screenings,
and they’ll not read about the failures of criminal screenings because these will be buried
in the terms of service. The result – a mistaken sense of safety.
Legislators in New Jersey, if inclined to pass an online dating safety bill, should:
- ensure that Internet dating services provide dating safety information on their websites; and
- make sure Internet dating companies that use criminal screenings warn users of the failings of these screenings, so users don’t have a false sense of security.
If New Jersey is to be the first state to pass online dating legislation, then let’s
get it done right.