Online dating apps get ultimatum to stop widespread abuse

Popular dating apps have been told to do more about abuse or risk a crackdown.

Popular dating apps have been told to do more about abuse or risk a crackdown. Photo: TND

Online dating apps are facing a federal government ultimatum to make their platforms safer for users amid fears companies like Tinder aren’t doing enough to protect Australians from harm.

Communications Minister Michelle Rowland wrote to platforms on Monday to demand they draft a voluntary code of conduct to combat pervasive sexual violence on popular dating apps, or risk a legislative crackdown to lift transparency and co-operation with law enforcement.

It comes after Australian Institute of Criminology data published late last year found three in four people who had used dating apps had experienced sexual violence in the five years to 2021.

That included sexual assault or coercion, reproductive and sexual-health related abuse and in-person, image-based sexual abuse.

“Dating apps are now the most common way to meet a partner in Australia, yet the level of violence experienced by users of these platforms is deeply concerning,” Rowland said.

“Online dating platforms must do their part to end violence against women.”

Millions use online dating

Online dating has exploded in popularity over the past decade and is now the main way that young people in particular meet each other, with more than three million people using them.

But experts have long-held concerns about the way digital dating has opened the door to new types of sexual harassment and violence against women.

Swinburne University professor Dr Kath Albury said there aren’t adequate safeguards in place on popular online dating platforms to prevent women from being targeted by abusive behaviour, such as the sending of unwanted messages and images.

Additionally, platforms don’t provide users with enough control over who sees their content, which can enable a range of sexual harassment, including stalking.

“People putting dating apps together want to maximise the number of people who can connect,” Albury said.

“But moving fast and breaking things doesn’t work great in the space of human relationships where there are sensitive cultural issues or interpersonal violence.”

Platforms must adopt new methods

The eSafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant has previously sounded the alarm about dating apps being used by criminals, including alarming rates of revenge porn and extortion.

“One of the big problems we see is recidivism, where perpetrators are permanently banned but are still able to create a new account using a different device or email address,” she said.

Although online dating apps have invested in platform safety individually, the federal government fears the efforts “vary in sophistication and effectiveness” and wants an industry wide code instead.

Albury said that could include new tools allowing users to restrict access to their content, and additional reporting so that wrongdoing can be identified and addressed quickly.

“App users really want the platforms themselves to respond to their needs – all of the apps are so different and people are looking for different things on each app,” Albury said.

“Men seeking men on apps like Grindr don’t want the same responses that a young heterosexual women on Tinder does.”

It’s unclear whether self-regulation will go far enough to addressing rates of sexual violence and harassment on dating apps.

Industry codes of conduct in other tech-dominated industries have a mixed track record, with the controversial buy now, pay later (BNPL) industry providing just one cautionary tale.

The BNPL industry was in 2019 directed to set up a voluntary code to stamp out risky lending, but it was criticised by advocates for being lax from the beginning.

Eventually, the federal government was forced to intervene, raising the prospect of whether the same may happen with dating apps.

Rowland said that the Albanese government is prepared to step in if they are not happy with what the industry produces.

“I have made it crystal clear that if the industry fails to improve safety outcomes for Australians, we will not hesitate to develop legislative options.”

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