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N.J. Legislature Pushes Ahead With Online Dating Bill

Bill would require dating sites to provide ‘safety awareness notices’ to customers and disclose whether they perform criminal background screenings.
N.J. Legislature Pushes Ahead With Online Dating Bill
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Nov 22, 2007 8:00 AM PST    Text size: 
TRENTON, N.J. — The New Jersey state Legislature Monday pushed forward a bill designed to improve the safety of online dating sites, even as some of the legislation’s supporters conceded that the measure was flawed.

The Internet Dating Safety Act, sponsored by Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein, D-Mercer, would require dating sites to “provide safety awareness notification that includes, at minimum, a list and description of safety measures reasonably designed to increase awareness of safer dating practices as determined by the service,” and to disclose whether the site performs criminal background checks on its members.

Sites that do not conduct criminal background checks would be required under the law to “disclose, clearly and conspicuously, to all New Jersey members that the Internet dating service does not conduct criminal background screenings.”

Sites that do conduct criminal background checks on members would not only be required to disclose that fact, such a site also would be required to state whether it has “a policy allowing a member who has been identified as having a criminal conviction to have access to its service to communicate with any New Jersey member,” and to provide safety notices stating that “criminal background screenings are not foolproof.”

The required safety notices would include warnings that criminal background checks “may give members a false sense of security [and] are not a perfect safety solution, that criminals may circumvent even the most sophisticated search technology, that not all criminal records are public in all states and not all databases are up to date, that only publicly available convictions are included in the screening, and that screenings do not cover other types of convictions or arrests or any convictions from foreign countries.”

Speaking with reporters this week, Greenstein conceded that the bill is not the ideal solution to the problem of dating site safety.

“There’s definitely possibilities for this to fail,” Greenstein said.

Adult industry attorney Lawrence Walters called the bill “a feel-good solution,” and said that while well intentioned, the legislation would have little effect if it is passed.

“The legislature expects that the dating sites will all rush to start performing background checks, because customers are going to flock to the dating sites that perform the checks,” Walters said. “This is a misunderstanding of the market — especially of the youth who are the heaviest users of social networking and dating sites, and the culture that gave rise to the social networking phenomenon. In all likelihood, the law wouldn’t make much of a difference in terms of what dating sites people join and use.”

Walters said that the bill could raise some 1st Amendment concerns, as the safety notices that dating sites would be required to post could be construed as “forced speech,” but added that due to some well-publicized murders and other crimes that involved perpetrators and victims who met online, the state probably could persuasively argue that a compelling government interest would be served by mandating the safety notices.

Dating site operators interviewed by the Associated Press echoed Walters' point about the bill’s potential efficacy.

“It’s ineffective and bad for consumers,” said Marshall Dye, an attorney for Match.com.

“This bill really does more harm than good,” added Bill Ashworth, the director of state government affairs for Yahoo.

Greenstein and representatives of companies that operate dating sites are slated to meet to discuss changes to the bill, but the N.J. state Legislature’s Law and Public Safety Committee Monday voted to send the bill to the full assembly, anyway.

Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, D-Bergen, who serves as chairman of the Law and Public Safety Committee, defended the bill as a positive step forward in improving dating site safety, despite its flaws.

“We are charged with protecting the safety of the public we serve and this bill is a major step, even though it’s not the perfect bill,” Johnson said.

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