As with all things Internet, the policy tension here comes down to a clash of privacy interests. People really like dating in cyberspace in part because they can do it in the privacy of their homes. In return, they will forgo some privacy when they post photos of their lower-back tattoos on MySpace.com. Most subscribers to online dating services are interested in these companies precisely because they afford tremendous privacy. Heavy regulation would mean that the blurry lines between reality, fantasy, and wishful thinking would be patrolled and enforced by cyberlove cops.
Most online dating services agree that there isn't really a problem anyhow; that most of their consumers are savvy enough to understand the rules, which aren't really all that different from the rules you'd have used at Studio 54 in 1975: Don't give out your last name or phone number, and assume that anyone who mentions their trust fund or a diamond mine is a liar. All of which hasn't precluded these companies from including, in their contracts, disclaimers making their clients aware that they are responsible for absolutely nothing that goes wrong, from fraud, to crime, to ugly flowers at the wedding.
When Congress enacted the CDA, it expressly stated that it sought "to promote the continued development of the Internet and other interactive computer services and other interactive media [and] to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by Federal or State regulation." Congress could have written the same language and substituted "love" for "the Internet." Ultimately, both seem to flourish in the dark, nourished by half-mad illusion, and free from too much oversight.
The reason we aren't really regulating Internet dating sites, then, seems to be that the courts and Congress, the sites and their clients, pretty much all agree that love, like the Web, is inherently a mess of half-truth anyhow. It's probably just an accident that we in America are rewriting the laws of electronic love at the same moment that we are re-imagining the rules of modern war. But in both cases, it seems we are largely willing to stick to the ancient principle that, in either case, all is still fair.
A version of this article also appears in the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post.
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