Online Dating

7 December 2020

Online dating apps have changed how an entire generation meets and how they connect with each other. Dating apps like Tinder and Bumble have become part of young people's lives. They allow them to meet people in their area who share their interests in a way that is convenient, accessible and affordable. These platforms have had a transformative impact on our lives, and for the most part this transformation has been emphatically positive. But like most platforms they also impose harms on the community. Those harms have taken time to become obvious, and it is taking longer for regulators and law enforcement agencies to adapt to them.

Dating apps have also proven to be a useful mean for predators to target young people and to commit a range of offences known as 'technology facilitated sexual violence'. A number of recent cases demonstrate what is meant by this. The most shocking is that of a 13-year-old girl who was in the care of the South Australian Minister for Child Protection. This girl was a user of the MyLOL dating app, which is aimed at teens, and she was targeted by a 35-year-old paedophile. She was impregnated and subsequently underwent a termination. Despite the heinous offence committed against someone in the state's care, the minister was not even aware of the case until a guilty verdict was returned in August this year. I contacted the minister three months ago seeking information about what action she would be taking to protect other minors in the state's care, and incredibly this correspondence has gone unanswered.

Another case relates to a 56-year-old man whose body was found in February this year. The body was found bound and abandoned in bushland near Batemans Bay. Police have alleged that the man arranged a meeting with a 17-year-old through the Grindr app. Whilst the circumstances remain unclear, the 17-year-old, along with two others, has been charged with the man's murder. A third case relates to a Melbourne man known as the 'Tinder rapist'. This man used Tinder and other apps to arrange meetings with his victims before committing acts of sexual violence against them. Incredibly, the man continued using Tinder even after he was charged with sexual assault. He was able to set up multiple accounts using fake names and continued to try to lure women. The man subsequently pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 14 years and nine months. He has shown no remorse for his actions or for the trauma he caused his victims, and tragically one of his victims took her own life before the man was sentenced. The judge presiding over the case said the online world 'provides a fertile landscape where predators can roam'. These cases demonstrate the truth of that claim.

The key point here is that the apps don't recognise they have any duty of care to protect their users from predators—no duty of care. An investigation by the ABC's Four Corners and Hack programs revealed that apps like Tinder often failed to act on user complaints. When complaints are made, users often receive little more than an automated response. It is not clear whether the platforms actively investigate complaints, whether they take action to block users who are accused of wrongdoing or even whether they report wrongdoing to police and other agencies.

The investigation also revealed that police and other agencies struggle to make contact with these apps in the course of an investigation, which is simply unacceptable. It could be argued that such apps even facilitate predatory behaviour. With lax registration requirements and features like Tinder's 'unmatch' facility, which completely erases the message history between users, effectively a predator can register on Tinder with nothing more than an email address and a burner phone. Once they have committed an offence, they can unmatch with the victim and it becomes virtually impossible for police to trace the offender.

In Australia, every business providing financial services is required to comply with know-your-customer obligations. Platforms like Tinder should be subject to similar obligations so that perpetrators can be easily identified when an offence is committed. Every platform should also offer a simple way for law enforcement agencies to contact them and access information about users, including their message histories. Simply publicising a basic level of cooperation could be enough to deter many predators.

Last month, the Australian Institute of Criminology published a report into dating apps and violent offending. Although dating apps facilitate only a small proportion of sexual assaults, it is clear that users of these apps have a greater risk of victimisation than non-users. That report noted research which found that around half of all dating app users had experienced some form of harassment—over half!—and such experiences were even more common among LGBTIQ+ users. It is not clear whether the app developers are aware of these experiences. If they are, it does not appear they are taking action to clean up the behaviours of users. Few apps publish safety guidelines or provide users with information about what constitutes an offence and how they can take action when an offence is actually committed. A user's only recourse is to report wrongdoing in the app and hope that someone actually sees or acts upon the report. As the law currently stands, there is no legal obligation for these apps to remove or block sexual or violent offenders from using these platforms. The criminal history of users is not screened. This enables predators, and very much needs to change.

The businesses which develop and profit from these apps need to be accountable. Their products have facilitated a great number of relationships, friendships and marriages, and developers should rightly feel proud of the good they have achieved, but—and it's a big but—they should also be held accountable for the harms which they have indirectly facilitated. It is unfortunate that businesses have not been proactive in providing greater protections for their users. It is because of this failure that the government needs to step in and protect the community.

A year ago, the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts announced the government would legislate a new online safety act that would help to deliver the protections the community expects. The minister said:

The internet offers significant economic and social benefits, but these benefits will only be fully realised if Australians can engage confidently and safely in the online world.

I agree with those comments entirely. As part of the announcement, the government circulated a consultation paper, at the end of last year, which included a proposal for basic online safety. This would provide minimum standards for apps and platforms to meet. Although I was unsure whether these expectations would be enough to protect users, I felt it was very much a good start. Incredibly, there has been no action since the consultation closed in February. Admittedly, the pandemic has made it more difficult to consult and to develop policy, but it has also forced more people online more of the time. There is even greater need for these protections to be developed and legislated in the current environment. I urge the government to recognise online safety as a matter of urgency and a legislative priority, and I ask the minister to commit to introducing legislation to this effect in the first sitting of 2021.

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