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Several states are cracking down on the online dating industry, proposing new laws that would, among other things, mandate criminal background checks on all those looking for love on the Internet. To date, New York is the only state that has a law regulating online dating sites, but six other states have introduced similar legislation in the last year. They are: Michigan, Florida, California, Texas, Virginia and Ohio. Lawmakers seeking to regulate the online dating scene claim that the industry isn’t doing enough to police itself, and consequently, is putting vulnerable people at risk for meeting up with predators. Proposed legislation has varied state to state, with some states wanting to make criminal background checks mandatory, while others want online companies to alert surfers upfront that background checks on potential dates have not been done. FALSE SECURITY? Attorney Markham Erickson, of Holch & Erickson in Washington D.C., who counsels dating and social networking sites on legislative and regulatory matters, noted that some of the state proposals have raised constitional concerns due to the interstate nature of the Internet. “It’s nearly impossible for a dating service to put state boundaries around the service and comply with a patchwork of state laws,” he said. Michael Marin, of Vinson & Elkins in Austin, Texas, who has represented clients in the online dating industry in recent litigation, said that “[r]ight now if you’re a consumer and you meet someone online you can go and pay for a background check. There’s no reason to mandate that.” He added that background checks “would create a false sense of security and create a liability for the online dating company.” Marin last year successfully defended an online dating company that was sued by a user who allegedly was raped by someone she met on the Web site. Marin got the case dismissed, citing the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which grants broad immunity to internet companies for content provided by third parties. Marin is also currently defending Myspace.com in a Texas case involving a 14-year-old girl who claims she was sexually assaulted by someone she met on Myspace and is seeking to hold the Web site liable. Marin declined comment on that case. Doe v. MySpace Inc,. No. D-1-GN-06-002209 (Travis Cty., Tx. Dis. Ct.). Marin noted that customers could sue over a date who had been screened, but turned out to be dangerous. Those users could argue that the company falsely represented the person as being safe, he said, and that the criminal background check served as “some sort of stamp of approval” by the company. Yahoo!Personals echoed that sentiment, arguing that criminal background checks are unreliable, incomplete and inconsistent. “We do not believe that the providers of background checks have at this point developed processes that can meaningfully increase the security we provide our customers today. The systems available are uneven from state to state as well as county by county,” Yahoo!Personals spokesperson Kelley Podboy said. Not all dating Web sites, however, are resisting background checks. TheBadge.org recently started offering free criminal background checks to paid members. And True.com offers its users background checks on felons and married people. Anita Ramasastry, who teaches e-commerce at the University of Washington School of Law, noted that while the online dating industry is already protected against lawsuits through the CDA, how far that protection goes is the new question, she said. She said Web sites are now faced with the possibility of being liable for harm that occurs not on, but off, the Internet, such as rapes or a physical assaults. “What happens when you go off-line . . . when the harm was off-line? It’s sort of a gray area and a novel legal question,” said Ramasastry, who favors offering broad protection to the dating websites, and letting them police themselves. But lawmakers argue the industry is too young and too immature for that, and people could get hurt. “It’s like the wild, wild west out there,” said Michigan Sen. Alan Cropsey, who is co-sponsoring a bill that would require online dating services to perform routine criminal background checks on users. “When somebody goes on line and says, ‘I’m so and so,’ They ought to be able to check and say ‘Hey, is this name popping up anywhere as far as being a sex offender or a domestic violence offender.’ “ Tresa Baldas is a reporter with The National Law Journal, a Recorder affiliate based in New York City.

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