Ethics Quiz: Is An Online Dating Service Ethically Obligated to Screen for Sex Offenders?

Your perfect computer match!

Hollywood screenwriter and author Carole Markin sued the leading Internet matchmaker,, for not screening its applicants to eliminate sexual predators. She was raped by one that the online dating service had designated as her “perfect match.” This week the company settled the lawsuit  by promising to perform security background checks on all current and future members.

Markin, who is an Ethics Hero, said “If I save one woman from getting attacked, then I’m happy.” She waived monetary compensation and gave up all rights to pursue with further claims.

Your Ethics Quiz for today is a multiple choice:

Question: Is a dating service ethically obligated to check the backgrounds of match applicants for sex offenses?

Possible Answers (Choose one!):

A. Yes.Look what happens if they don’t!

B. No. A legal disclaimer stating that the company cannot vouch for the information submitted by any individual is sufficiently fair and reasonable.

C. Yes. The service has a duty to do everything in its power to ensure the safety of its clients.

D. No. It is obligated to do what it says it will do, and anything else is a choice, not an obligation.

So far, courts have refused to require match services to do background checks, finding that there is no legal obligation. The decision by to settle the case anyway probably reflects a business decision that having a case in which a member was raped play out in the media was really bad for business, and that ensuring nervous members that the service wasn’t a hunting ground for rapists would be good for business. Both of those are not ethical calculations, but pragmatic ones. Sure enough, dating services eHarmony and Zoosk announced that they, too, were checking members against criminal databases to enhance security for their members.

For those who dislike the civil justice system, this case is an example of how well it can work. Even though the odds were that Markin would lose, the lawsuit itself forced a business to change its practices to the benefit of customers.The various match services ended up doing the right thing, though only because it was the smart thing to do, not because it was ethical. If they had started the checks before Markin was raped, that would have been more impressive. It didn’t take an expert in the field to figure out that online dating services would be full of sexual predators. They all knew it, and were happy to let users assume the risk.

The right answer, I think, is D. Doing background checks is responsible and desirable, but if a service tells its members what service it provides, it is not ethically obligated to perform better or safer services for the same price. I view the situation like a hotel swimming pool that doesn’t have a lifeguard on duty. Sure, the pool would be safer with a lifeguard, but I know the risks. We can’t require service providers to provide, as matter of obligation, the best services possible.

All the match services will cost more soon, as a result of the settlement. There will be subsequent suits, I am sure, arguing that and the rest should verify other information submitted by members; there will definitely be lawsuits every time a sexual predator slips through the system. Eventually the services could become so expensive or so burdensome to operate that the service itself vanishes. Would that be better than having match services that involve a risk that is fully disclosed and understood by users?

I kinda like having a pool to use when I’m traveling.

Women will be safer as a result of the decision to screen, and that is good. Markin properly and responsibly used the system to change industry standards. The company had no ethical obligation to check, however.

2 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Is An Online Dating Service Ethically Obligated to Screen for Sex Offenders?

  1. I’m not sure but that and the other on-line dating services, have not actually increased their likelihood of being sued in the future, should a similar incident occur, in spite of the new precautions. We already had lawsuits where precautions (surveillance cameras, security patrols, “blue light” stations, etc.) were used as evidence that the owners (or whoever) knew of the dangers, and why didn’t they do more? Isn’t the running of a background check essentially the same thing? Then again, I don’t have a law degree or anything, so please correct me if I’m off-base.

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