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In the fall of 2018, Emily C. remembers telling Bumble that a man she met through its popular online dating platform had sexually assaulted her. The company didn’t respond, she says. Two months later, after seeing his profile photo on the app, she recalls the same report-no-response scenario playing out.
Emily C., who requested her last name be withheld to protect her privacy, has matched with this man on other dating apps. Companies use geolocation to find matches for users, and he lives within a 3-mile radius of her Brooklyn apartment. When she spotted him on Tinder that year, Emily says she alerted the platform. Again, she never received a response.
“I do not want other women to experience what I had to,” she wrote in October 2018 to Hinge, a third app that matched the pair. Emily provided screenshots of his profile to the company, stating, “Please, please, please remove him from the app.”
Hinge, unlike its counterparts, sent her an automatic receipt. “We take abuse reporting very seriously, and will be taking immediate steps,” the company said in its reply. Two months later, Emily contacted Hinge to inquire about her report — and she received the same message.
“It’s like being assaulted twice,” Emily, now 27, said of the companies’ lack of response to her report. “They failed their users. They’re not taking responsibility for what they created, which is a monster.”
Online dating companies, including Tinder, Hinge and Bumble, have made a range of commitments to ensure user safety. Match Group assures its users that it will check across Tinder, Hinge and all its brands to block an accused user’s account. Bumble declares a “strong stance” against abusive behavior on its site.
Asked about Emily’s sexual assault report, a Bumble spokesperson declined to speak on the record with Columbia Journalism Investigations. After our inquiry, the company sent Emily an email thanking her for her bravery and recommending she contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline. The company’s email confirmed that the individual is no longer on the platform, and that he “will never be able to match with anyone on Bumble again.” Emily chose not to report the sexual assault to the police.
Tinder and Hinge, two popular dating platforms owned by Match Group, declined to comment.
We’ve spent more than 16 months examining the online dating industry. The investigation we published in December revealed the industry giant Match Group fails to screen for registered sex offenders on its free products — OkCupid, PlentyofFish and Tinder — despite doing so on its paid platforms. Our reporting has shown that some dating app users either received inadequate responses to their rape complaints or none at all.
Emily is among the nearly 200 women and men who filled out the confidential survey published with our story. Some, like Emily, say they reported their attack to the company but saw the user on the app again. Many more told us it never occurred to them to report an offline sexual assault to an online dating company. Or they didn’t realize a dating website could play a role in preventing such incidents.
Victim advocates we’ve spoken to say that these companies have a moral responsibility to enact safety measures to protect users. Popular dating platforms claim to take user safety seriously, but what should someone expect when he or she signs up for these services? We’ve compiled some questions and answers to help people better understand this often opaque sector.
Many people assume that you wouldn’t hold a bar responsible if someone was raped there, so why should a dating app be held to a different standard. Is this a fair comparison?
“That’s not true,” said Carrie Goldberg, a victims’ rights attorney who handles cases involving online abuse. “If my client was raped in a bar and there was any notice that the bartenders gave her too much to drink or she tried to ask them for help and they didn’t, I guarantee I’d have them as a defendant.”
In fact, bars have to check identification to avoid serving alcohol to minors and are at legal risk if a patron slips on a spill that they knew about. Yet such traditional tort liabilities typically don’t apply to online dating companies, experts note.
“If you set up a rusty playground, and people fall down and get tetanus, just because you can say most kids fall down and don’t get tetanus, that’s not an answer,” said Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, who specializes in constitutional and cyber law. “And yet that’s the system we’ve set up for internet companies.”
Should I expect a dating app to do anything about something that happened in real life?
Online dating companies have made a range of commitments to ensure user safety. The most popular sites say they have customer service teams to review users’ rape reports. They promise to block a bad actor once found. Match Group assures its users that it will check across Tinder, Hinge and all its brands to block an accused user’s account. Bumble declares a “strong stance” against abusive behavior on its site. Match, EHarmony and Sparks Network, which owns Zoosk, ChristianMingle and JDate, signed a best-practices statement in 2012 agreeing to establish a “rapid abuse reporting system” that “acknowledges receipt of the customer concerns.” Grindr makes no guarantees.
“Rapid response is important,” said Bethany Backes, assistant professor in the Violence Against Women Faculty Cluster Initiative at the University of Central Florida. Of the apps, she said, “Morally, they should take some sort of action.”
Our reporting has found that dating platforms don’t always live up to their words. Yet some experts, like Goldberg, argue that Americans should judge those apps harshly. “If you’ve designed a dangerous product and you’re making money off of it,” she said, “you can’t abdicate that responsibility.”
What do dating platforms say they’ll do when you report a rapist?
Platforms like Tinder, Hinge, PlentyofFish and Bumble say they will investigate a rape report, attempt to identify the accused user and block him or her. A police report is not required to alert the company. Match Group promises to check what it describes as a “centralized safety repository” across its brands to see if an accused user has other accounts. If so, according to Match Group, those accounts are blocked. Grindr makes no promises to block accounts.
Are there registered or convicted sex offenders on dating apps?
While most popular dating sites and apps do not screen against sex offender registries or conduct background checks, users are agreeing to approve these companies’ right to screen them at any time, according to the service agreements.
To sign up for apps like Tinder, Hinge, OkCupid and PlentyofFish, users must agree through the terms of service that they’ve never been convicted or pleaded no contest to a felony or sex crime. They also confirm they are not registered sex offenders. Bumble and Grindr don’t conduct criminal background checks on members.
Most people don’t read the terms of service before signing up for a dating app. Is there anything in there that I should know about?
When agreeing to the most popular dating apps’ service contracts, users are also agreeing to pursue any legal claim against the company through arbitration — an avenue to resolve disputes outside the regular court system. If a user does pursue such a claim, the service agreement states that he or she gives up the right to go to court and appear before a judge or jury. A user also gives up the right to participate in a class-action lawsuit.
Agreeing to the terms of service means that you’re promising to be at least 18 years old. But we know that underage users manage to access dating apps.
Does an online dating company have a legal responsibility to respond to user rape reports? If not, why would they bother to help?
Online dating services have used a provision in the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act (CDA) to deflect lawsuits claiming negligence for an incident of sexual assault. Known as CDA Section 230, the provision grants internet companies immunity from liability as publishers of third-party content. Section 230 was meant to encourage free speech online, while allowing moderation to occur. Some experts believe judges have applied CDA 230 so generously to company policy that immunity extends beyond dating app users’ content, which includes speech, images and videos.
“It’s largely been interpreted to tell internet companies like Match Group that they don’t have liabilities or obligations,” said Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, who specializes in constitutional and cyber law. “They’ve been able to avoid liability from harmful actions that result from facilitating users’ connections.”
Carrie Goldberg, a victims’ rights attorney who handles cases involving online abuse, notes that Match Group has fought state regulations and, as she put it, “proactively gets involved in litigations when they aren’t even named parties.” For example, Match Group, along with other industry groups, submitted a “friend of the court” brief supporting the dating app Grindr in a case involving one of Goldberg’s clients.
In the brief, the companies argued that Section 230 protections are “vital,” and without them the companies would “suffer significant harm or cease to exist altogether, as the costs of litigation and potential liability from the astounding amount of user content would be crippling.” They encouraged a broad interpretation for the promotion of users’ speech and ability “to police their own services for objectionable content.”
Legal experts have told us that without legislative reform or change in the courts’ interpretation, online dating companies won’t be held liable for harm occurring offsite, even when notified.
But while dating platforms have little legal responsibility, many have promised to ensure user safety. Match Group, the Dallas-based corporation that owns 45 online dating brands, states on its website that “we believe any incident of misconduct or criminal behavior is one too many.”
I’d like to report my sexual assault to the company but can’t figure out how. What can I do?
We’ve heard from some readers that they tried to report an offline incident but found navigating the company’s website or app difficult. We’ve created a guide on how to report here. We’ve also included resources on how to find a victim advocate and how to report to police after experiencing sexual assault, because reporting to the company is just one option.
How can I help you investigate?
Help us by participating in our confidential survey.
We want to hear from:
- people who reported an incident of sexual assault to an online dating company
- dating app industry employees
- law enforcement personnel
Screenshots of communication are particularly helpful.
Tell us if and how dating companies cooperate with police. We also want to hear from former and current employees who can help us learn more about company policy.
If you don’t fall into one of these categories, please consider sharing our survey with family and friends. Confidential tips can also be sent to [email protected], or you can call 929-260-1654. We’d love to hear from you.
Know someone affected by sexual assault who needs confidential support? Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673. Or talk to a trained staff member from a nearby service provider.
Keith Cousins, Brian Edwards and Sarah Spoon contributed reporting.