OPW INTERVIEW -- May 18 -- The Internet Alliance is watching your back. Emily Hackett is the Executive Director. Here's more on what they do and how they protect the interests of social networking and internet dating companies. - Mark Brooks
Tell me about the Internet Alliance? What's your mission?
The IA monitors political and legislative activity in all 50 states and is active in about half the Capitols each year, focusing on states where Internet legislation and policies are being debated. The IA lobbies to pass bills that make the Internet work better and defeat bills that stifle or limit ecommerce. Our mission is to promote consumer confidence and trust in the Internet so it can become the premier marketing medium of this century.
Who are your leading members in the Online Dating and SNS industries?
IAC (InterActiveCorp) Barry Diller's group, which includes Match.com. AOL, eHarmony, and Yahoo! We also represent a broad section of the industry including Amazon, AT&T, Comcast, Experian, United Online, and VeriSign.
Why do you believe that the online dating industry shouldn't be regulated?
A well-educated consumer can maneuver the online and offline dating world safely. There is a tremendous amount of information available online to help consumers safely approach any dating service.
IA members believe that online dating background check bills offer no real protection to consumers, unfairly discriminate against online businesses and take an ill-advised approach with regard to protecting consumers who use the services. There has been no outcry from consumers for background checks, nor failure of the market to respond to those consumers who want them. These bills are discriminatory. Dating services that do business via voicemail messages, newspaper personals or faxes of user's profiles are all exempt. It doesn't make sense to impose onerous regulation on online segments of this market while exempting competing services that use other media.
What are you focusing on most now in terms of legislation that might affect the dating and SNS industries?
We have been focusing on a variety of bills that require background checks, background check disclaimers or verification of age.
Many states don't make their criminal records available in easily searchable forms. Consequently, the only "real" option under these bills is to use private vendors. Some of the bills would require that such a vendor maintain a database whose information contains more than 170,000,000 criminal records. Coincidentally, this just so happens to be the exact figure publicized by a large private vendor owned by ChoicePoint, Inc. called RapSheets.com.
Criminal databases maintained by private vendors may not be able to get accurate information from every state. These databases may only contain felony convictions. This means someone arrested for a domestic violence or sex related offense, but had that arrest pled down to a misdemeanor, would make it through the screening. Background checks could easily be circumvented. The dangerous result of this gaping hole in the system is that a woman on the other end of the computer will be led to believe that she is communicating with a "safe" customer, because that felon appears to have passed a "sex offender registrant search."
This is special-interest legislation that will do little to protect consumers using online dating services and is to the benefit of one company. By pushing for background check disclaimers, True.com is asking the Legislature to give them the edge they have failed to accomplish in the marketplace. The New Jersey legislation doesn't require background check disclaimers for advertisements, newspaper personals, telephonic dating services, or in-person matchmaking services.
The IA's highest priority is keeping children safe online. The IA supports bills that would require convicted sex offenders be subject to continual supervision of all incoming and outgoing email as well as periodic unannounced examinations of the person's computer by a parole officer, law enforcement officer or assigned computer information technology specialist. The IA supports funding police and prosecutors who need additional tools like training to investigate, identify and prosecute cyber criminals. The IA would support making it a felony for any person 18 years of age or older who uses a computer to knowingly solicit a minor.
Social Networking Task Force:
IA members are participating in the Harvard Berkman Centers' Internet Safety Task Force, developed as part of a recently announced Web safety initiative from MySpace and the nation's attorneys general. The task force is evaluating various Internet safety technologies, including social networking age-verification tools, and will produce quarterly reports on its findings next year.
True.com has persuaded state legislatures to sponsor bills that favor their practices. Where are we now with this legislation?
The newly passed New Jersey law, which the IA opposed, requires Internet dating services offering services to New Jersey members to provide a safety awareness notice to customers and a notice disclosing whether criminal background screenings on its members have been performed. It was signed January 13, 2008 and became effective May 1, 2008.
An Internet dating service that does not conduct criminal background screenings of it members is required to provide notice of that fact in one of three ways: electronic mail message, on the members profile or on the service's website.
If an Internet dating service conducts criminal background screenings, then the service shall disclose 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; shall state that criminal background screenings aren't foolproof; that they may give members a false sense of security; that they aren't 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 don't cover other types of convictions or arrests or any convictions from foreign countries.
What can these industries do to protect themselves?
Educate members on how to protect themselves online. Join the IA. The state legislative process can be a nightmare. The IA team consists of seasoned professionals who are excited by the challenge and the prospect that our work will help make the Internet marketplace grow and prosper.