JURISPRUDENCE

The Online Laws of Love

By Dahlia Lithwick
Sunday, June 4, 2006

They are widows and married millionaires and Yalies . They are Christian nonsmokers and truckers and Republicans . And they all want to date you. Well, maybe not you. But someone you could pretend to be, with a little imagination and a working laptop.

Everybody is blond and skinny in cyberspace. And that can be a problem. Just consider the number of marriages ending because one of the parties just met their one true love through Yahoo Personals. As one divorce lawyer recently told Lawyers USA: "A client will come in -- man or woman -- and say there's someone across the country I want to marry. When I ask them, 'Have you met at all?' the answer is, 'No, I just know this is my soul mate.' "

With online romance epidemic, some legislators and lawyers have started to clamor for something to be done about the great abundance of fraud and heartbreak in the world of cyberlove. But really, how would that differ from trying to regulate what happened on "The Love Boat"?

The biggest problem with Internet dating is the snake oil. There is, for starters, the guy in Atlantic City who just pleaded guilty to 10 counts of wire fraud for scamming women around the country with fake Internet profiles. He'd tell women he met online that he needed money to move to their area, then spend it at the roulette table. Then there's the Arizona man who shelled out $2,000 for plane tickets to fly in a Russian beauty who had written to him, breathlessly, "Every time, when I reading your letter, my mood become well and my heart is knocking so strong!" She never showed. Or the guy in Australia who defrauded a bunch of old people so he could transport his Internet "girlfriend" who was a "North American model" to Australia. He's in prison.

Lawsuits against Internet dating sites for the false statements of other customers have mostly gone nowhere, in part because Congress basically immunized such Web sites with the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which says providers can't be held liable for the lies of third parties. That makes some sense. Why shoot the messenger? But a new crop of suits is being pressed by disgruntled customers angry not about false claims by third parties, but about false third parties allegedly created by the companies.

Match.com is defending a lawsuit over "date bait" -- the creation of fake flirty e-mails to keep paying customers from canceling their accounts. And Yahoo Personals is defending a class-action suit accusing it of creating phony profiles to "generate interest, public trust and give the site a much more attractive and functional appearance." Both companies deny any wrongdoing.

Still, even in the wake of all the alleged fraud and abuse, efforts to regulate Web dating have been limited. In addition to that 1996 law, Congress last year passed "mail-order bride" legislation, which attempted to regulate the more than 200 mail-order bride services operating in the United States. The purpose of the act is to protect foreign women from being stalked, abused or held against their wishes. The law is already being challenged by angry wife-shoppers who believe they should not be forced to disclose personal details (including past marriages, children or alcohol-related offenses).

Beyond these federal efforts, a handful of states have also attempted to clamp down on fraud in Internet dating: New York has passed a consumer protection statute to regulate Web sites, and proposals are being weighed or have already passed in California, Florida, Michigan, Texas and Virginia that would force online dating sites to tell clients whether they perform criminal background checks on members. These laws wouldn't require background checks. They would just shame providers who don't perform them.

So why, in a field so fraught with possibilities for crime and fraud and theft, has the Internet dating industry met with so little regulation? Partly because it works. According to a survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project , a nonprofit research organization, 17 percent of online personals users said their efforts resulted in a long-term relationship or marriage. And 15 percent of American adults now say they know someone who has married or been in a long-term relationship with someone met online. Serious criminal complaints, on the other hand, are fairly rare.

As with all things Internet, the policy tension here comes down to a clash of privacy interests. People really like dating in cyberspace in part because they can do it in the privacy of their home offices. In return, they forgo some privacy when they post photos of their lower-back tattoos on MySpace.com. Most subscribers to online dating services are interested in these companies precisely because they afford tremendous privacy. Heavy regulation would mean that the blurry lines between reality and fantasy and wishful thinking would be patrolled and enforced by cyberlove cops.

Most online dating services agree that most of their consumers are savvy enough to understand the rules, which aren't really all that different from the rules you'd have used at Studio 54 in 1975: Don't give out your last name or phone number, and assume that anyone who mentions their trust fund or diamond mine is a liar. All of which hasn't precluded these companies from including, in their contracts, disclaimers making their clients aware that they are responsible for absolutely nothing that goes wrong -- whether it's fraud or ugly flowers at the wedding.

The reason we aren't really regulating Internet dating sites seems to be that the courts and Congress, the sites and their clients pretty much all agree that for love to blossom on the Web, there must be ample space for fantasy and hope. And as is the case with every singles bar in the world, love blooms best with minimal oversight. It's probably just an accident that we in America are rewriting the laws of love at the same moment that we are re-imagining the rules of war. But it seems we are largely willing to stick to the ancient principle that, in either case, all's fair.

dahlialithwick@hotmail.com

Dahlia Lithwick covers legal affairs for Slate, the online magazine at www.slate.com.


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