In a world dominated by technology it follows that more and more people are meeting their romantic partners online, with the UK alone seeing a third of relationships starting from a connection on a dating app. 

There has been an explosion of dating apps in recent years with a recorded 323.9 million users worldwide, and dating app business revenue growing to a staggering US$5.61 billion in 2021. However, although many welcome the introduction of internet dating, a recent study shows that many users have experienced sexual assaults as a result of dating app use. Moreover, of those that have experienced abuse or assault, a great percentage feel platforms have failed to address their reports of assault and introduce satisfactory measures to protect users.

In a recent exposé, the BBC identified that sexual offences linked to dating apps have doubled between 2017 and 2020, with more than 6,000 people having reported crimes linked to online dating platforms during this period. Over a quarter of users claim to have feared for their safety at some point, and 23% of men and 39% of women report have felt the need to either block someone completely or report them to the dating platform as a result of their interactions.

In a survey conducted by the BBC, it was shown that over a quarter of people who have used dating platforms in the last four years have experienced sexual assault while on a date, and a third reported harassment or abuse on the dating app itself. However, despite these worrying statistics, almost half of users that had reported someone to the service said they felt dissatisfied with the response they received.

One 19-year-old user described an incident in 2018 where she had been on a night out when she replied to a male she had been speaking with on Tinder. The male sent a taxi to pick her up from the club and take her back to his home where she was raped. The user states that the incident was reported to Tinder the following morning but she received no response. Moreover, as a result of her complaint to the service, the pair were ‘unmatched’ and their chat history deleted, leaving her unable to pursue her complaint with the police due to lack of evidence.

Another user similarly states that Tinder did not take her allegations of rape threats seriously and comments on her fears for the safety of other users. She reports being bombarded with messages from a fellow dating app user who had been able to locate her personal details from social media accounts linked to her profile. These messages were said to contain graphic details about how he wanted to rape her, threats that he knew where she worked, and even her home address. Despite reporting these messages to Tinder straight away, it took weeks for her to receive a response and the response simply said that Tinder were unable to assist as there had been no physical attempts to harm her and they could not prove that he was a danger to their users.

These complaints follow the case of Katherine Smith who was murdered by a man she met on the dating website, Plenty of Fish. Smith was 26 when she began dating ‘Tony Moore’ after connecting with him on the dating platform. Smith was later stabbed 33 times in her flat by ‘Moore’. It was later found that ‘Tony Moore’ did not exist and the name was an alias for Anthony Lowe, a man with over 140 previous convictions which included assault and violence against women. Lowe had used a fake identity, including fake name, age and address, to create a profile and connect with other users without fear of his background being discovered.

Lowe is eligible for parole in 2032 and many are concerned that there remain no restrictions on dating apps that would prevent him from using the same method to create another dating profile and therefore nothing in place to protect users from being exposed to similar situations. At present, many dating apps do not carry out mandatory verification of their users’ identity, meaning that anyone with access to an email address and phone number can sign up for their services without having to prove that they are who they claim to be. Tinder has announced in the last year that they will roll out the option to verify an account but this option remains voluntary and has not been widely incorporated by other dating apps.

A spokesperson from SurvivorsUK, a charity which provides support to men and nonbinary people who have experienced sexual violence, commented on the arguably nonchalant attitude of the dating platforms and the fact that despite their considerable resources, they appear to consider sexual violence to be “something that will always happen” and not “something that they have a key role in preventing”.

The apparently unconcerned attitude of these platforms likely stems from the fact the present legal position absolves these platforms from any responsibility for the actions of their users outside of the application. The law as it stands has it that anything that happens outside of the app between users who meet on the app is not the responsibility of the party running the application, meaning that many applications remain unconcerned with the reports of sexual assault by their users.

Furthermore, applications can also limit their liability and protect themselves from legal claims through their terms and conditions. However, applications are not permitted to protect themselves from court cases if it can be established that the application could, or should, have stopped the death or personal injury. In cases like that involving Katherine Smith, it is clear that the platform could have prevented the interaction had they taken steps to verify Lowe’s identity, however, the need for such extreme circumstances to ensure an application’s interest in the safety of their users presents a far from ideal situation.

The complaints are not isolated to the United Kingdom, with many users worldwide reporting similar issues of assault and lack of verification of their user’s identities. A Chicago resident reported being assaulted in 2018 by a man she met on Bumble. However, despite reporting the incident to the application she noticed that the user was still active on the platform, and was only told after she tweeted about the incident that the platform had no filter that would prevent the perpetrators from accessing the app.

The lack of requirements for dating apps to verify the identity of their users and implement robust and effective measures for protecting users remains the position today. Despite the assurances from many platforms that the safety of their users is a priority, the obvious failures suggest that free dating apps may never address these concerns satisfactorily and users should remain cautious.