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Cupid Aims for Background Checks

Privacy advocates decry a campaign to require criminal screenings by dating websites.

April 25, 2005|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

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 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."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 26, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Online dating -- An article in Monday's Business section said bills under consideration in several states would require online dating sites to conduct criminal background checks on subscribers. The legislation also would allow sites to forgo checks if they posted prominent messages saying they don't conduct them.

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 and Texas, and an Ohio lawmaker plans to introduce one this month. 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.

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."

Ohio state Rep. Tom Patton, a Republican, said he planned to introduce a version of the bill because of the dangers women in particular face online. "They are more trusting," he said.

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, Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) 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 Rapsheets Criminal Records, which is owned by ChoicePoint. The service's coverage is spotty in some states. In California, Rapsheets can search Superior Court records in only four of the state's 58 counties.

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