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Online Dating and Safety: Five Reasons Big Brother Should Butt Out!

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Copyright (c) 2011 Dirk Sayers

I’m going to strenuously resist the temptation to shoot the messenger, on this one. Ms. Stephanie Rosenbloom writing for The New York Times online posted an article dated Dec 18, 2010 entitled “New Online-Date Detectives Can Unmask Mr. or Ms. Wrong.” As Ms. Rosenbloom relates, there is a (relatively) new crop of companies popping up on the Net targeted at verifying identity and helping online daters sort the good apples from the bad. I’m sure most of us would agree that’s good news. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t stop there.

The article predicts the government is about to get involved. Ms. Rosenbloom goes on to note that New York and New Jersey have taken the first legislative steps toward attempting to “regulate Internet dating sites” and that “…legal experts believe changes to the liability laws that protect such sites are on the horizon.”

It seems a noble enough objective, on the surface of things. Who wouldn’t be in favor of greater online dating safety? That said, I must reluctantly argue that the cure may be worse than the disease, DEPENDING on how we go about it. I realize some may be inclined to disagree with me. Some may argue we should leave no stone unturned to ensure online dating safety. If you are one who is of that opinion, I’m going to ask you to read on and bear with me. Let’s see if you don’t wind up changing your mind.

What follows is an incomplete list of all the reasons we should NOT legislate that online dating sites take on responsibility for screening members prospective and existing in the name of “safety.” Let’s start with the obvious.

1. Safety is a personal responsibility. Saddling online dating sites with that task continues the well-intentioned but misplaced desire to protect everyone from everything, irrespective of whether it’s either reasonable or possible. Asking online dating sites to be responsible for vetting the trustworthiness of its clients is likely to have the effect of making online dating marginally to moderately more costly, while failing at contributing to safety. It’s unrealistic for them to do so without altering their business model: at some cost to users.

2. Online safety isn’t really “online safety,” just as online dating isn’t really online dating. You don’t date online. You MEET online and take it offline at some point. When both parties make a conscious decision to take it up close and personal, the safety or lack thereof is not a function of how you met. It is a function of your choices and the commonsense steps you take to ensure your own safety. Online dating sites can do nothing to protect you from yourself…and you would resent any attempt on their part to do so.

3. Meeting online is not inherently more dangerous (and possibly less so) than say, “clubbing.” I have heard of no moves afoot to legislatively regulate the men or women who go clubbing, though some clubs attempt to add an aura of exclusivity by making them membership only. But this is a business decision, not a legislative one. The point, here, is that treating online dating differently than night clubs (for example) is inherently prejudicial, with little practical hope of providing greater safety.

4. Privacy (your privacy) will be the first casualty of “online safety,” if online dating sites are obliged to get in the safety/security business. It is the inevitable and necessary trade-off for additional safety. As Braden Cox, policy counsel for NetChoice a Internet company advocacy group states, “Most people, thankfully, are good people on these websites,” referring to online dating sites. He would know. He married someone he met online. To the extent it makes you feel better, you can avail yourself of one of the private many companies that do identity verification. But the government should not force online dating/meeting sites to become an additional safety filter in any form, unless they choose to do so as part of their business activity.

5. Ms. Rosenbloom’s article finishes on to quote a lawyer and safety “expert,” Parry Aftab, who cites a particularly disturbing case of pedophiles “wooing” single mothers to get near their children. I can’t imagine anyone of normal sensibilities not wanting to protect children from pedophiles. Forget for a moment the government’s less than sterling record with databases. The onus for the safety of our children lies with their parents. Suggesting the government can or will do a better job with that is yet another invitation for the invasive presence of the state in our lives.

We must never forget that the business of government is to do things in our name we can’t readily do for ourselves. Securing our personal safety (or that of our children) in elective activities is not (and should not be) one of those. We decide whom we meet, when and under what conditions. We decide to whom and when we will expose our children to those we meet. Common sense, not the ubiquitous presence of big brother is what is needed here. Ms. Rosenbloom’s well-written article is a disturbing example to me of how accepting we have become of officious governmental interference in our personal lives. Isn’t this is one of those places where big brother needs to butt out and stay out? Or am I missing something, here?

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