Internet dating becomes more popular, introduces debate over background checks

Marty Dolan, principal at Dolan Law, and his associate Karen Munoz represent victims of wrongful death and personal injury. His column “Law and Wellness,” appears in the Chicago Lawyer and her column appears regularly in the Law Bulletin. This week’s blog is written by Karen Munoz.

A friend of mine recently got engaged to a woman he met on a dating website. They had been dating for about a year before they decided to tie the knot and seem very happy. This got me thinking about the world of Internet dating again. What just a few years ago was a taboo subject, at least for participants, is now totally commonplace in, and totally accepted by, most of society. So much so that research suggests that at least 17 percent of couples that married in the U.S. each year met online, although that figure has been disputed.

Of course, there are no meaningful longterm statistics available on the success of marriages or relationships that started on the Internet as against those that did not, but we can at least say with confidence that a lot of people have great confidence in Internet dating sites.

However, it is not all rosy in the garden. As it is with the old-fashioned dating scene, not all people who sign up for dating websites do so with the best of intentions. There are predators out there and people who seek to exploit those genuinely looking for love.  Legitimate concerns have been raised about such predators earning intimate personal details about vulnerable, naive members and taking advantage of them.

That is why the proposed Internet Dating Safety Act (HB 4083), passed the Illinois House on March 28 with a vote of 83-26. The bill provides that all dating websites operating in the state of Illinois must include a disclaimer on their website that informs users of whether or not the site conducts background checks on members. Advocates of the bill believe it is a huge step that helps users of Internet dating sites better protect themselves.

However, opponents of the bill have raised a number of concerns. Some opponents, including state Republican Jim Durkin believe the legislature is overreaching and that users of the dating sites have a responsibility to “perform their own due diligence.” Their position is essentially that since there is no third party service that conducts background checks for people dating “offline,” Internet dating websites should not be obligated to do it for people.

Those opposed to the bill also argue that a disclaimer indicating that a particular site does conduct background checks may be harmful insofar as it could lull users into a false sense of security regarding other users of the site. A background check, while it might reveal convicted sex offenders, for example, will not reveal every single “predator” the seeks to use dating websites with the devious intentions but may not have anything in their background that would indicate that. A related criticism is that inaccurate background checks could also result in the expulsion of legitimate users.

Whichever side you fall on, it is certainly an interesting debate with valid arguments on both sides, and one that many other states may be facing soon as Internet dating becomes ever more popular.

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