Regulation and the Dating Industry. What’s out there?

In the rapid growing industry of online dating, concerns should also be growing over the lack of regulation for the entire industry. The worries published about the lack of responsibility taken by the companies in this industry have been inking the press for years yet nothing seems to have been done?

As part of my campaign moving forward, my goal is to get legal regulation (not self regulation) for all current and future dating platforms to truly protect the users. This should include non-UK based companies legally obliged to comply with our laws if operating a service within our country (even if parts of that service are processed outside the UK). What industry specific regulation is there?

First, I needed to work out what regulation if any was actually in place at the moment.

Here is what I found.

There are 3 general cross industry laws that apply to all companies. These are:

These apply to the dating companies too. However, the ODA claim they decided to take a closer look and define these for their industry:

The Online Dating Association is an organisation founded by 13 leading ‘players’ (all voluntary). They claim to want to take responsibility for the ONLINE dating sector to protect consumers. Members that follow their ‘ODA Code’ of Conduct can display the ODA logo on their dating platform.

The ODA states:

The Online Dating Association Code of Practice (“ODA Code”) is binding on members of the Association. It sets out what is expected of members under a series of key headings:

  •   General Rules (unregulated)
  •   Honest and clear communications (Marketing and Advertising)
  •   Protection of the user (software used for money fraud scammers, operating internationally in the main, like Scamalytics)
  •   Delivering to meet user needs (Consumer Rights)
  •   Protecting data and privacy (Data Protection)

‘The feeling within the sector in the last few years was that it was time we took some collective responsibility for our market and our users as well as exercising responsibility as individual service providers.

In summer 2013 a group of dating site providers took and acted on the advice that this is a market where players should not rely solely on the framework of privacy, data and consumer law to protect the market and those in it.

The law and regulations applicable to the sector clearly matter and should be respected. But laws and regulations have to deal with the generality of industries and businesses to which they apply and our statutory regulators are often thinly stretched and not able to do much other than react to consumer harms.

We, like other sectors, saw the need to give regulations “life” and to draw out, highlight and give meaning to those that particularly matter for online daters. The ODA aims to pre-empt and prevent problems by testing members against our Code of Practice before they can come into membership – and afterwards.’

They go on to state that:

‘Our Code of Practice and our advice for the public on the best and safe use of services was published in December 2013. The Code is short, simple and outcomes-based. It focuses on the core issues for users: the clarity and honesty of the services offered, the protection of user’s personal information, the proper operation of services and the advice and help we give users to make dating as enjoyable and safe as possible.’

Isn’t this simply the current ‘must have’ legal regulation across all industries with some ‘advice tips’ thrown in?

Back in 2013 when the ODA was founded it claimed that:

The Code which will help ensure compliance to existing laws and regulations and it will set the bar higher.  It will be anchored in a set of principles, with supporting rules and guidance:

* Being honest and clear in what you offer (Advertising)
* Meeting expectations and deliver what you promise (Consumer)
* Protecting people’s data and their privacy (Data)
* Protecting our users from harm, deception and loss

So here too, the first 3 standards are ‘general industry’ regulations.

But the 4th claims protection from harm, deception and loss. The ODA haven’t replied to my email on which ‘regulation’ this actually is, other than mere advice for dating safely online and what consequences are in place to the members who don’t comply? A news article on How to stay safe when online dating gives 6 key points of how to stay safe but the DateGreat:DateSafe link is broken.

All I can do is find this in their code. The part of the code that details this is here:

Section 3. Protection of the User (these sub clauses are pertinent to fake profiles)

3.4 ODA Members must have policies and arrangements to prevent misuse or inappropriate use of their services.

3.5 ODA Members must ensure all User profiles are checked and that appropriate arrangements exist to detect fraudulent or misleading Profiles and inappropriate content and to remove any such Profiles from the site as soon as possible.

3.6 ODA Members must not themselves create fake Profiles or knowingly allow Users or any other party to create and post fake Profiles. If ODA Members create Profiles for testing or other administrative purposes this should be done in ways that ensure Users are in no doubt over the nature of such Profiles.

I thought I would test out a company affiliated with the ODA and it’s ‘ODA Code’-

I decided to set up a fak(ish) profile. What hurdles would I come across? What verification was there in place to ensure the information I was giving them was correct? (3.4 & 3.5)

The results. I used a rarely used email of mine from years ago that required no verification. I used the name Lisa, I copied and pasted a photo from the internet and used that as the profile picture. I waited while the 15 minutes passed for the photo to be verified, mean while I ticked the boxes they wanted about my preferences and hair colour and length. Obviously more important than if I was actually real, married or a convicted rapist. Before the photo had even passed the process I was able to browse the online sea of faces. I clicked the email about activating my account and BINGO! complete. It’s that easy. 2 minutes later the email arrived to say the photo had been verified. Fak(ish) profile success (I then suspended the account).

What did do that followed the rules and ‘high standards’ set out by the ODA? Nothing. In fact recent research revealed that came joint second for crimes probed by Durham constabulary between 2011 and 2016.

Their response to my query,  regarding these principles is that it isn’t their responsibility because they state in their T&C’s that the user must provide accurate information. They simply store that information correctly and accurately.

Match also featured heavily in the recent Channel 5 documentary ‘Murder on the Internet’ An almost identical response was received by them from Match when questioned.

So, I’m a rapist who wants to groom and abuse women using their Website as my sweetshop. I can fill in anything I like on that profile. NOTHING is checked. What a great way to exploit women. The sad facts are that although this does happen to men too, statistics show that women are exploited at a ratio of approximately 80:20 the police say sexual abuse cases are more 85:15.

Just recently the dating website has been publicised in the Daily Mail  and has made headlines as it blatantly flouts U.K. law promoting bigamy. What is being done to stop this? Nothing. The man who runs the website set this up in Dubai where Sharia Law exists. However, this is being allowed to operate in our country too. Not only does this flout U.K. law but is putting women and girls at risk of abusive and DV relationships and completely undermines the decades of hard work to secure equality for women. This site also claims FULL VERIFICATION -no fake profiles as a feature. HOW exactly?

The police say:

‘Pretty much all other businesses have a regulation / compliance function or some kind of consortium that they have to address if things go wrong. But not the dating sites.

The ODA do encourage good practice and seek to push for good simple alert mechanisms and we are pushing for a cross board date safe kite mark on all sites.

But as you know, the sites operate globally, the rewards are good for the big players and they don’t want to alarm potential customers by swamping the adventure with law enforcement based warnings and jargon.’

Andrew, CE of the ODA did kindly take an hour to chat on the phone with me (after several emails over the months) where I tried to impress the importance of getting better verification in place across the industry. I stressed I realise this is not an overnight issue to be solved and that I wanted knowledge to enable me to put viable suggestions that work for everyone (as they are businesses) to take forward. I came away with the understanding that I would be invited to meet with their members when the occasions occur, but they fell at the first hurdle and no response to my email asking why they didn’t feel it appropriate for the meeting just gone. Mmmmm.

I wonder if the law changed to say that this Industry could be sued for negligence when things go wrong, if a ‘verification process’ would materialise?

Amber Rudd is currently pushing for better security online to help combat  terrorism. Dating websites are a great place to begin the process of radicalisation if the criminals choose to use them on vulnerable people. But why should it stop there? Money fraud aside, women are being exploited by men still in this decade for self gratification and yes the parameters of this exploitation online are vast. Too many of societie’s attitudes are that this behaviour is ok. Why is it ok? It is becoming normalised because the police are choosing not to put forward cases that mean they have to work at it, cases that are not black and white-to keep their stats good. Cases that now involve the use of technology are moving in the right direction with fake profiles and revenge porn and trolling legislation (more still needs to be done as far as the convictions taking place) but the  judicial system is rarely faced with unusual or different cases as the CPS don’t let them, making this appear publicly that this exploitation ok and doable. Moving backwards in equality? Very much.