True love with a criminal-background check

CNET News.com explains what's behind the move by many state legislatures to regulate online dating services.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read
Herb Vest believes that true love should come with a criminal-background check.

Vest is the chief executive of True.com, an online dating service that pledges to verify whether your dream date is a convicted felon or, worse yet, already married.

"Although criminal-background screening is not entirely foolproof, we owe it to our members to provide a truly wholesome environment for online courtship," Vest said last year.

This would be an engaging but otherwise unremarkable business plan, except for one twist. Instead of competing head-to-head with his rivals in the business world, Vest has veered into the political world by pressing for new laws that would put True.com's competitors at a severe disadvantage.

Vest has managed to convince legislators in states including California, Texas, Virginia, and Michigan to sponsor bills that would target rival dating sites like Match.com, Yahoo Personals, Spring Street Networks, craigslist and eHarmony.

Those sites would be required to stamp this stark warning atop every e-mail and personal ad, in no less than 12-point type: "WARNING: WE HAVE NOT CONDUCTED A FELONY-CONVICTION SEARCH OR FBI SEARCH ON THIS INDIVIDUAL."

Who would want to set up a date after reading that? (The exact text of the government-mandated label would vary by state, and companies that didn't comply would be subject to whopping fines.)

True.com, of course, has ensured that it would be exempt from the warning requirement. So would any other Internet matchmaker--not that any other company qualifies--that "conducts a search for the person's felony and sexual offense convictions through a regularly updated database" that "contains more than 170 million criminal records and sex offender registries."

Vest seems to be a scrappy entrepreneur. He founded an accounting firm, HD Vest, and sold it to Wells Fargo in 2001. Then he launched Texas-based True.com in January 2004 and soon wound up in a public spat with business titan Barry Diller, whose company owns Match.com. True.com now boasts 2.3 million members and is growing by 8,000 to 10,000 new members per day, Vest says, though it's not clear how many are paying monthly fees.

Love can't be blind?
Unfortunately, not all of the effects of True.com's proposed law--it has a template that's being shopped around to state politicians--are benign.

First, it would regulate far more than just dating sites. The California bill introduced last week covers any Web site offering "compatibility" or "social referral services"--a sweeping definition that encompasses everything from high-school reunion site Classmates.com to a matchmaking site for a tennis doubles tournament.

Under the California proposal, social referral services Friendster.com and Google's Orkut.com would be on the hook for fines of millions of dollars a day if they declined to post a warning similar to the one above on California members' ads or profiles. The proposed Michigan law, which cleared the state House but died in the Senate, similarly regulates companies providing "social referral services primarily through the Internet."

It also singles out Internet-based dating as a potential source of adulterous spouses and felonious knaves. The truth is that that there's no reason to believe that online dating is more risky than searching for love through telephone-based matchmaking, skimming classified ads in newspapers, or picking up a stranger in a bar.

At the same time, True.com is the first to admit that its background searches are hardly perfect. Without a fingerprint check, the searches can't catch felons signing up under a fake name, for instance. Granting a governmental blessing to such a service might offer some singles a false sense of security.

What's more, True.com's proposal falls into the category of special-interest legislation. That has the competition asking why one company deserves special treatment from politicians? "They're trying to legislate their business model, and quite frankly it's a weak business model," says Match.com spokeswoman Kristin Kelly. It would be just as easy to argue that True.com should be required to post labels on each page: "WARNING: TRUE.COM'S BACKGROUND SEARCHES WILL NOT IDENTIFY CRIMINALS USING FAKE NAMES. AND THE COST TO RUN THEM MAY BE PASSED ON TO YOU."

True.com concedes that its legislation may be overly broad but says it can be narrowed. "The laws would be a good thing," Vest told me on Friday. "We found that 20 percent of Internet users believe that some of the larger dating services do background checks when in fact they do not. We believe there's a false sense of security out there that needs to be corrected through disclosure."

A better approach might be an old-fashioned one: leave love alone. It has enough problems flourishing without "help" from politicians.