Dating has always been a delicate dance of information swapping: What to reveal when?
Now some lawmakers want to regulate it by requiring online dating services to conduct background checks on their clients.
The push runs counter to the prevailing sentiment about privacy. In the wake of high-profile breaches at information brokers ChoicePoint Inc. and Reed Elsevier's LexisNexis, state and federal legislators called for tighter control of personal information, with less, rather than more, disclosure.
Most online dating sites, including IAC/InterActiveCorp's Match.com and Yahoo Inc.'s Yahoo Personals, oppose background-check bills in key statehouses around the country. But competitor True supports them - and, in fact, is bankrolling the campaign.
True's founder and chief executive, Herb Vest, believes that every online dating service should conduct background checks, as True does.
"The primary motivation is to protect people from criminal predation online," Vest said. "I can't imagine anyone with a hatful of brains being against that." Vest said he spent $200,000 last year on lobbyists around the country. Although opponents charge that his goal is to gain publicity for his site, the legislation has met with at least some success in four states.
The Michigan House of Representatives late last year passed legislation based on a model bill written by True; it wasn't approved by the state's Senate but was reintroduced in both houses this year. Similar measures are being considered in Florida, Texas and Ohio. A California version was pulled before a committee could vote on it this year.
"This is one of those feel-good kind of legislations that politicians can get behind," said analyst Charlene Li of Forrester Research Inc.
Privacy advocates are alarmed.
"The notion that we should be requiring yet another industry to do background checks is chilling," said Barry Steinhart, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology and Liberty Program.
"It hurtles us further into a surveillance society in which every action is going to be investigated by an entity with no accountability." Raising the stakes for both sides is that a law in any one state could effectively create a national standard because of the difficulties in applying different local standards to Internet commerce.
"I think every lobbyist in town is involved in this one, one way or the other," said Michigan state Sen. Alan Cropsey, a Republican, who is a sponsor of the bill being considered in his state.
Internet daters themselves are divided. John Knowlton, 52, who teaches journalism at a community college in Auburn, Wash., said he was uncomfortable with government taking a role in the matter. And he found it unfair that online dating was being singled out.
"Every day, thousands of personal ads appear in print," Knowlton said. "Why wouldn't they be subjected to the same thing?"
Elana Luber, 35, a lawyer in the Los Angeles area, is generally in favor of background checks, saying: "Who wouldn't want to have people screened for something so basic as whether or not they're a criminal?"
The bills generally would mandate that online dating services find out whether clients have been convicted of felonies and post that information or ban convicted felons from their sites. The legislation also would allow sites to forgo checks if they posted prominent messages saying they don't conduct them.
Texas state Rep. Will Hartnett, a Republican, put opponents in the same category as those who would "defend child molesters who prey on people on the Internet."
He dismissed the worries about privacy being compromised.
"As far as I am concerned," he said, "anyone convicted of a felony loses the right of privacy."
In promoting mandatory background checks, Vest cites several incidents of violence and fraud he says people suffered at the hands of ne'er-do-wells they met on the Internet.
But Vest acknowledges that it's not clear whether a search of criminal records would have prevented any of those incidents. And in California, Democratic Assemblywoman Fran Pavley said she withdrew a background-check bill she had introduced after True's lobbyists couldn't give her concrete examples of anything untoward an online dater had endured that a check might have derailed.
That's a key problem, said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. Givens said her objections centered on shortcomings in the records culled by background-checking companies.
"Because these sites don't cover every jurisdiction in the country, it could give a false sense of security," Givens said.
The background-check service that True uses is Memphis, Tenn.-based Rapsheets Criminal Records, which is owned by ChoicePoint. The service's coverage is spotty in some states.
"We think we do a good job in covering the country," said Camille Gamble, director of marketing at Rapsheets. "But no non-government database can be 100 percent."
Background checks could eat into the bottom lines of dating services or increase the costs to clients. Most are privately held or owned by corporations that don't break out the results. The big exceptions: Match.com and Udate.com, which are part of Barry Diller's IAC.
Last year IAC's online dating sites generated $198 million in revenue for the company, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing. That was up $12.7 million, or 7 percent, from 2003, underscoring the popularity of Internet dating. About 8.4 million people were paid subscribers of dating sites in 2004, according to Jupiter Research.
Match.com has about 1 million paid subscribers, said spokeswoman Kristin Kelly. She defended the safety of the sites, saying that clients get to know one another online before they mutually decide to meet. She added that there had been fewer than 10 reported violent crimes in connection with people who met at Match.com in a decade of operation.
"We are not a chat room; we are an online community where you get the chance to communicate with someone as long as you want without letting them even know your real name," she said. "We think it's even safer than in a traditional meeting place like a bar, where you meet someone and might give your information sooner.
"As far as we are concerned," she said of Vest's background-check campaign, "this is a ploy to force one site's business plan on the entire industry." Vest, 60, defended his plan, saying that it was born less of business interests than a personal crusade against violence.
Shortly before his second birthday in 1946, he said, his mother found his father dead at his cabinetry business. The death was judged a suicide, but recently, Vest said, he uncovered evidence that it was a homicide. (The case was featured on CBS-TV's "48 Hours" news program this year.)
Number of unique visitors to top Internet dating sites in March (in millions):
¢ Yahoo Personals, 5.93
¢ Match.com sites, 3.96
¢ Spark Networks, 3.37
¢ EHarmony.com, 2.73
¢ True.com, 2.54
¢ IMatchup sites, 2.54
¢ Love@AOL, 1.72
¢ Tickle personals, 1.37
¢ HotMatchup.com, 1.13
¢ DateCam.com, 0.94
Source: ComScore Media Metrix
"The murder of my father certainly left its mark on me," Vest said. "I believe that I perhaps have a great deal more compassion about these matters. Deep down, I want to protect people from criminals."
There could be long-term economic benefits from standardized background checks for the entire industry, said Vest, who founded a financial-services company that was sold to Wells Fargo & Co. in 2001 for $127.5 million.
"If we gain the overall public acceptance of online dating, we can more than double the number of people coming to us," Vest said. "The other sites are being myopic; they are only interested in short-term gain."
Li, the Forrester Research analyst, said she didn't have any indication that criminal background checks would be a boost to the industry. But she said there was a common deception plaguing Internet daters.
"The fraud comes when someone says, 'I'm a 6-foot-2 athlete and weigh 180 pounds,'" she said.
"Then they show up at the door and the reality is that they are 5-foot-8, 240 pounds and have not run a mile in years. A background check is not going to help you with that."