Should online dating websites be responsible for site users’ behavior offline as well as on? That’s essentially what a California woman is arguing through her lawsuit against popular dating site Match.com. The woman alleges she was sexually assaulted by a man she met on the website, who turns out to be a convicted sex offender for other assaults on women he met online, and is demanding the site screen users to prevent similar attacks.
In a CBS article published the day after the woman filed the lawsuit, the spokespeople for Match.com asserted that screening site users is impossible and that the site was standing by its practices. However, just days later, MSNBC reported that Match.com announced they would begin checking its members against the national sex offender registry. Calling the move a mix between a publicity stunt and an effort to ward off future lawsuits, the MSNBC article goes on to list a plethora of reasons why these screening efforts are “nearly worthless,” including lack of identity verification (or ways to fool identity verification), the notorious unreliability of sex offender registries, and statistics showing that most assaults are perpetrated by friends, family, and loved ones, not sex offenders.
To be honest, when I first found out the alleged attacker was a convicted sex offender, I was shocked and appalled by how easily he was able to utilize online dating sites to prey upon women. However, even before reading the MSNBC article, it dawned on me that this situation could have happened very easily without the help of an online dating site. Think about it — how often do people try to hook other people up on dates, even if they don’t know one of the parties very well? Would it make sense to sue the “matchmaker” if the person they set you up with assaulted you? Or what about the people who meet at a bar and go home together or exchange numbers and meet up for a date later? Should people sue the bar owners for not screening people at the door? Or should online dating sites be held to a higher standard because matchmaking is their bread and butter?
I would argue it’s a combination of the two. Most will remember the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit in which a woman sued McDonald’s because she burned herself on their coffee. Many argued that this was a prime example of the prevalence of excessive lawsuits. And, c’mon, we all know coffee is served piping hot (unless you order an iced coffee). Just like we all know to be careful with a hot cup of coffee, online daters should know to take special precautions. For those who don’t, Match.com already offers its members safety tips for online dating. And let’s not forget that dating in general can be dangerous, whether you meet your date online, in a bar, at the grocery store, through a friend, etc.
So who takes the responsibility for a situation like this? Is this woman right to sue Match.com and demand more stringent screening protocols even though screening tools are exceptionally flawed at present? Or is this just a very unfortunate incident that could have happened regardless of if she’d met the man online? What’s your take?