Online dating is a $650 million industry, and it’s growing. So it’s no surprise that the top players compete fiercely for a larger slice of the pie. Their tactics include intriguing television and radio ads, racy online ads, free trials, screening processes, security measures - and now lobbying. As the industry grows, politicians are eager to stick their hands into it.
True.com, which is one of the top online dating services along with Match.com, eHarmony, and Yahoo personals, has successfully pushed a bill through the New Jersey legislature aimed at marking their competitors’ services as unsafe. The lawmakers who championed True’s bill are happy to tout it as protecting their constituents, despite serious doubts on that score.
Unlike its top competitors, True conducts criminal background checks of all its members and trumpets this fact whenever they can, on their home page and in their ads. The firm believes this extra step wins them some business, and so they try to spread the word. In that effort, they have a new partner in the New Jersey government.
In January, both chambers of New Jersey’s legislature unanimously passed the Internet Dating Safety Act. The law does not require criminal background checks; it instead requires those dating services that don’t conduct such checks - that is, nearly everyone but True.com - to disclose this fact prominently on their website. In effect, Match.com would need to inform all New Jersey users, in bold, capital letters, "WE DO NOT CONDUCT CRIMINAL BACKGROUND CHECKS OF MEMBERS."
While only 26 percent in a recent poll assumed online dating sites do conduct criminal background checks, this disclosure will naturally scare all users, and could very likely send them looking for a service that does screen for criminals. So presumably hopes True.com, which is why they drafted and lobbied for this bill and are doing the same all over the country.
In 2005, the company formed a "public interest" organization called the Safer Online Dating Alliance (SODA), which launched a lobbying campaign in state legislatures. Bills like the New Jersey law were introduced in a handful of states. In Illinois, the legislation got a committee hearing, where it was shot down, in part, by State Sen. Jim Sacia, a retired FBI agent.
Sacia, an agent for 28 years, worried that the bill’s effects would provide "false confidence" to True’s users. "When I talk about background checks," Sacia told me this week, "I’m thinking a thorough criminal check, including a fingerprint search and calling people who know the individual." True doesn’t do that. They rely on criminal databases provided by counties and states, checking them against the names and birthdays provided by registered users.
Herb Vest, founder and CEO of True.com, denies that this legislation hurts his competitors. "When it’s being legislated like this, we’re giving up our competitive advantage," he told me. Vest thinks that other firms, faced with the disclosure requirements, will take up True’s policies of conducting the checks. The benefit, Vest says, will accrue to the entire industry by boosting consumer confidence in online dating.
True’scompetitors don’t see it that way. Braden Cox, a lobbyist for NetChoice, a coalition that includes Yahoo, has gone around the country to lobby against the bill. He argues that the measure is a potentially unconstitutional gift to True.com, and that the background checks don’t provide that much security.
If you listen to the lawmakers, of course, it’s not about boosting confidence in the industry or helping one company over the other, it’s about protecting people from stalkers, rapists, and predators. There’s little evidence that the bill’s champion in New Jersey, Senate President Richard Codey, cares about helping the industry or any one company; he either believes the legislation will keep people safe, or at least that it’s a good notch in one’s belt when running for higher office.
The story of True.com helps illustrate why government grows so rapidly and gets involved in so many aspects of our lives. Businesses can always find ways to use government to boost their profits, and politicians can always find new laws to hold up as trophies. In New Jersey this Valentine’s Day, ambitious lawmakers and shrewd businessmen made a very nice couple.
Examiner columnist Timothy P. Carney is senior reporter for the Evans & Novak Political Report.