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Dating apps have proliferated in the age of the internet and smart phones. One in three relationships in the UK now began online. The Daily Mash headline “Couple to lie about not having met on internet” sums up the sea change in dating culture. As is the case with most digital tools users remain largely unfamiliar with the legal issues surrounding dating apps and who is responsible when things go wrong.

Online Dating ImageCrimes connected with dating apps in general have rocketed as perpetrators have utilised online apps to easily target victims. Tinder, the most widely used app with 50 million users globally, facilitates matches by connecting Facebook accounts to profiles. The US based company avoids European data protection laws by engaging in jurisdictional arbitrage, arguing that the data is only used in the US at one location. This way Tinder has been able to avoid liability under the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which strengthens European users’ ability to control who has their personal data and what they use it for.

In the UK thousands of cases of sexual assault, drugging, other violent crime and theft have been connected with dating apps making the job of preventing and detecting such crime a whole new paradigm for the police, the courts and for lawmakers. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s appearances in front of the US Senate and the European Parliament are a timely reminder that traditional political accountability processes have failed to keep up with new technology and the public protection issues it has thrown up.

This begs the question of legal liability of such apps when they are used to commit crimes or when they facilitate abuse on or offline. So can dating app companies be held responsible for crimes and abuse which is facilitated by their platforms? The app creators, and shareholders, would no doubt argue that perpetrators are responsible for crimes not the tools they use. A nod to the American gun lover’s maxim – guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But if these apps, who harvest millions of people’s data for advertisers and generate millions of pounds of profits, make it much easier for perpetrators to target victims then to what extent should they be held liable when users are harmed?

So far legal accountability in the UK has not focused on the app companies themselves. Families of the victims of the so called Grindr killer who murdered four men and drugged and raped seven others using the app to set up dates are currently engaged in legal action against the police for failing to link the murders. The English High Court action over “breaches of duty and inaction” accuses the force of breaching the Equality Act 2010 by discriminating against gay victims. High profile sites like Tinder and Plenty of Fish have responded to growing criticism by developing safety tips for users which advise not sharing financial information and encouraging users to report suspicious behaviour. Tinder’s tips include the warning to ‘Stay Sober’ and ‘always meet in public’ reminiscent of many criticised policing campaigns which place the onus squarely on victims to protect themselves.

Police forces across the UK are stepping up their online expertise to keep up with technology, a perennial cat and mouse game given their respective resources. Out with the criminal paradigm it is unclear how the law can respond to vindicate the rights of victims. As most companies are not based in the UK it is apparent that users will struggle to access even basic information about what data is being held on them.

On the other hand claims against companies who negligently facilitate abuse will likely proliferate in the coming years as users become more concerned about their privacy rights online. Civil cases in this area will likely be complex and the judiciary will have to get their collective heads around the new technology in order to fairly adjudicate liability. This is, of course, possible and the courts have already had to deal with such cases. For a high profile example see the excellent explanation of how Twitter works in the appendix of the Jack Munroe v Katy Hopkins defamation judgement.

Meanwhile, as ever, new technology continues to present new legal dilemmas and the companies profiting from such apps will continue to develop ways to exclude legal liability for any crimes, abuse or prejudice their users fall prey to while using the apps. In the meantime users should be cognisant of their privacy and security settings and remember that, as ever, looking for love, sex or companionship can put you in a vulnerable position no matter how you try to find it.

Blog by Deidre Flanigan, Employment Lawyer

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