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Dating websites get matched up with some accountability

California cracked down this week on online dating sites — and it’s about time.

Now federal authorities should recognize that running a website doesn’t entitle you to be an absentee landlord and that the EBays and Craigslists of the cyber world are ultimately responsible for whatever skulks into their domains.

State Atty. Gen.Kamala D. Harris announced an agreement stemming from a lawsuit filed last year by a Match.com user who was attacked on a date with a man who turned out to be a repeat sex offender. The site’s computers had determined that the woman and the man would make a good couple.

As a result of the case and subsequent negotiations with the attorney general, Match.com, EHarmony and Spark Networks, the operator of JDate and ChristianMingle, said they now will cross-check member applications with sex-offender databases and work harder to verify the accuracy of information in user profiles.

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“Consumers should be able to use websites without the fear of being scammed or targeted,” Harris said. “In the interest of protecting and educating users, I strongly encourage all online dating companies to adopt the same principles as these industry leaders.”

Alan Paul Wurtzel of Pacific Palisades was sentenced in September to a year in jail for attacking the woman he’d been set up with by Match.com. Wurtzel pleaded no contest a month earlier to a charge of sexual battery.

Wurtzel drove the woman home after their second date at a Los Angeles restaurant. He followed her into her residence, where he held her down and assaulted her, police said.

The woman subsequently checked the national sex-offender registry and discovered that Wurtzel had six separate listings.

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The heavyweights of the online dating industry said they were keen to do everything possible to prevent situations like this from happening again.

“We have always been committed to setting the standard for positive consumer experiences in online dating, and we were happy to work with the attorney general, EHarmony and Spark Networks to encourage best practices throughout the industry,” Mandy Ginsberg, president of Match.com, said in a statement.

Her commitment to higher standards was echoed by the heads of EHarmony and Spark Networks.

About 40 million Americans used an online dating service last year, spending more than $1 billion in their digital searches for soul mates, the attorney general’s office said. One in six couples that married in the last three years met via an online dating service.

With numbers like those, it’s remarkable that it took this long for industry leaders to take an obvious step toward protecting customers. Yet even now, their dedication to users’ safety is tenuous at best.

The agreement signed with Harris is nonbinding and carries no enforcement penalties. In other words, the dating sites can’t be sued if they come up short in vetting would-be members.

I’m not saying that websites should be held accountable for every real-world trespass linked to the virtual world. Obviously there’s only so much anyone can do to keep a bad guy at bay.

But it’s clear that stronger safeguards are required not just for virtual matchmakers but all websites providing a platform for people to interact and transact business.

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Since the earliest days of the Net, website operators have argued that they can’t be held responsible for what users might do online.

Their stance was enacted into law under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which holds that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

In other words, if you’re EBay and someone is selling Nazi memorabilia and singing the praises of Hitler, it’s not your fault (even though EBay officially bans such practices).

Supporters of Craigslist made a similar argument after Philip Markoff, a 24-year-old former medical student, was accused of killing a masseuse he met through the website in 2009. Markoff later committed suicide in a Boston jail, and Craigslist closed down its “adult services” category.

I’m all for free speech, and I know it’s a slippery slope any time someone talks about putting any kind of limit on what can happen online.

But it seems to me that Section 230 is too blunt an instrument to be applicable to a wired world as we know it today. The Net is no longer a drooling little newborn that has to be stroked and cuddled to keep it from bursting into tears.

The Net is all grown up, and grown-up responsibilities should apply.

“The Internet is not anything like it was in 1996, and our laws are barely keeping pace,” said Tim Bukher, a New York lawyer specializing in Internet law and intellectual property.

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He said Section 230 “provides immunity for websites that are passive conduits” — that is, not tampering in any way with users’ posts.

But when a dating site starts running background checks on applicants, or when a listings site actively seeks to block prostitutes and child molesters, or even when a newspaper site starts moderating comments, it’s questionable whether that site can still claim to be “passive.”

“Once you start participating in the discussion,” Bukher said, “it can be argued that you should be liable under the law.”

This is a sensitive area, and any changes to the law should reflect and respect 1st Amendment considerations.

At the same time, I don’t see why an online business should be any less responsible for what happens within its cyber-walls than a real-world business. If you slipped and fell in a bricks-and-mortar store, you may have grounds for a lawsuit. But the digital realm has different rules?

The biggest barrier I can see to greater vigilance is financial. It’s expensive to screen and monitor potentially millions of postings a day. If the process can’t be automated, you’d need a bunch of people reading a bunch of submissions before they make it online.

That said, EBay pocketed $1.8 billion in profit last year. Something tells me they and other sites can afford a higher level of accountability for what appears under their banner.

And if not now, when?

David Lazarus’ column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.


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