The shadowy laws of Internet dating.
They are widows and married millionaires and Yalies. They are Christian nonsmokers and truckers and Republicans. And they all want to date you. Well, maybe not you. But someone you could pretend to be, with a little imagination and a working laptop.
Everybody is blond and skinny in cyberspace. And that can be a problem. Consider the number of marriages ending because one of the parties just met their one true love on Yahoo Personals. As one divorce lawyer recently told Lawyers USA: "A client will come in—man or woman—and say there's someone across the country I want to marry. When I ask them, 'Have you met at all?' the answer is, 'No, I just know this is my soul mate.' "
Some legislators and lawyers are clamoring for something to be done about the great abundance of fraud and heartbreak in the world of cyberlove. But really, how would that differ from trying to regulate what happens on the Love Boat?
The biggest problem with Internet dating is the snake oil. There is, for starters, the guy in Atlantic City who just pleaded guilty to 10 counts of wire fraud for scamming women around the country with fake Internet profiles. He'd tell women he met online that he needed money to move to their area, then spend it at the roulette table. There's the Arizona man who shelled out $2,000 for plane tickets to fly in a Russian beauty who had written to him, breathlessly, "Every time, when I reading your letter, my mood become well and my heart is knocking so strong!" She never showed. Or the guy in Australia who defrauded a bunch of elderly people of their money to transport his Internet "girlfriend," a "North American model," to Australia. She never showed, either. He's in jail. G'day, mate!
Lawsuits against Internet dating sites for false statements made by other customers have mostly gone nowhere, in part because Congress more or less immunized such Web sites from suit with the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which says the providers can't be held liable for the lies of third parties. That makes some sense. Why shoot the messenger? But a new crop of suits are being pressed by disgruntled customers angry not about false claims by third parties, but about false third parties allegedly created by the companies themselves.
Match.com is defending a lawsuit over "date bait"—creating fake flirty e-mails to keep paying customers from canceling their accounts, as well as allegedly sending actual employees on dates to pose as members. And Yahoo Personals is defending a class-action suit for allegedly creating phony profiles to "generate interest, public trust and give the site a much more attractive and functional appearance." Both companies deny any wrongdoing.
Still, even in the wake of all the alleged fraud and abuse, efforts to regulate Web dating have been limited. In addition to the CDA, Congress last year enacted the Mail-Order Bride Business Act, which attempted to regulate the 200-plus mail-order bride services operating in this country. The purpose of the act is to protect foreign women from being stalked, abused, or held in the United States against their wishes. The law is already being challenged by angry wife-shoppers who feel that they should not be forced to disclose personal details (including past marriages, children, or alcohol-related offenses).
Beyond these federal efforts, a handful of states have also attempted to clamp down on fraud in Internet dating: New York has passed a consumer protection statute to regulate Internet dating sites. Proposals either being weighed or already passed in Texas, Virginia, Michigan, California, and Florida would mostly force online dating sites to tell their clients whether they perform criminal background checks on their members. These laws wouldn't actually require criminal background checks; they would just shame providers who don't perform them.
So, why, in a field so fraught with possibilities for crime and fraud and theft, has the Internet dating industry met with so little regulation? Partly because it works. According to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a nonprofit research organization, 17 percent of online personals users said their efforts resulted in a long-term relationship or marriage. And 15 percent of American adults now say they know someone who has been in a long-term relationship or married someone they met online. Serious criminal complaints, on the other hand, are fairly rare.
Moreover, when it comes to Internet dating, there is a real possibility that the medium is actually by and large safer than singles' bars. Not only are the parties communicating in words, as opposed to pouts and leers, but, as a wonderful divorce attorney I know suggests, dating on the Web has caused the pendulum to swing back toward old-fashioned courting. According to James Fox Miller: "Couples who meet on the Internet are getting to know each other, bond emotionally, before taking off their clothes and hopping in the sack."
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of lips on Slate's home page courtesy Royalty-Free/Corbis.