Dogged by questions about sexual violence, Match Group — which owns Tinder, Hinge, Match.com, OkCupid, PlentyofFish and others — is investing in a company that aims to enable background checks on apps. Some legislators say it’s not enough.
When dating app behemoth Match Group announced on Monday a “seven-figure” investment in a startup called Garbo, which aspires to help app users conduct background checks on prospective dates, it was the fourth significant safety initiative the company had announced since the start of last year. The company had previously hired a new head of safety from Uber, announced a review of its practices relating to sexual assault response and invested in another startup, Noonlight, which provides tools such as a phone-based panic button that can alert law enforcement if a user feels threatened.
Match Group first began unveiling its new steps days before the chair of a subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform announced an investigation of dating app safety early last year in the wake of what he called “extremely troubling reports.” Those reports included an in-depth examination by Columbia Journalism Investigations and ProPublica, which revealed that Match Group screens for registered sex offenders on its paid Match.com app but does not do so on its free apps, which include OkCupid, PlentyofFish and Tinder. “There are definitely registered sex offenders on our free products,” a Match Group spokesperson acknowledged to CJI and ProPublica at the time.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee followed suit, citing the CJI and ProPublica article and targeting Match Group in particular. Legislators called on the company to disclose its efforts to “respond to reports of sexual violence.” U.S. Reps. Ann Kuster, D-N.H., and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., urged the company to conduct screening checks and “provide a basic level of protection” for both free and paid users.
Match’s latest step this week involves plans for a screening check. It consists of an investment and partnership with Garbo, a nonprofit that seeks to make background checks easier, equitable and more affordable. “We have always been committed to improving safety and investing in the latest technologies across our products,” a Match spokesperson said. “We are partnering with Garbo because we believe in this platform and its mission that people should have access to these types of information.”
Garbo lets users search for criminal records (excluding those for small-time drug possession charges and traffic violations) about their prospective dates. According to Garbo’s website, its technology appears to be in its early stages of development. As of September, Garbo’s beta pulled results for a number of large counties in New York state — but no other states — and only for active cases, not past ones.
Match Group plans to expand the service’s coverage to include past cases and other states, according to a company spokesperson. Match’s investment will go toward hiring, product and leadership roles. Match said it will also devote resources outside of that contribution to getting the product up and running, first on Tinder — in theory, by the end of the year — and then on its other platforms. The company hopes the technology will be used outside of the dating app ecosystem as well.
Public pressure impelled Match Group’s initiatives, according to Carrie Goldberg, a victims’ rights attorney who represented Garbo founder Kathryn Kosmides in a gender-based violence case that inspired the nonprofit’s creation. Calling the ProPublica and CJI article “a game changer,” she said, “I’ve been dealing with crimes that happened through dating apps for seven years, and it’s literally the first article of its kind that looked at it as a serious problem and then motivated members of Congress to care.”
But critics of the dating app industry were not placated by the company’s latest step — not least because Match has acknowledged that customers will have to pay to use the background checking service. (The Match spokesperson said the company is “still working out the pricing structure,” but it wants to ensure that the “background checks are at a price point where it’s accessible to our users.”)
“Physical safety shouldn’t be placed behind a paywall,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., who launched the first congressional investigation. “If Match Group wanted to show us they are serious about protecting people, they would make this feature available to all users at no cost.”
Krishnamoorthi’s fellow Illinois Democrat, Schakowsky, echoed his view in an emailed statement: “While this may appear as if Match Group is taking safety more seriously, it’s hard to tell whether this is an attempt to pad their bottom line or promote safety on the platform.” (The company’s investment appears modest compared with the $746 million in operating income that the company made on $2.4 billion in revenues in 2020.)
Schakowsky has drafted a bill known as The Online Consumer Protection Act that would force dating apps and other social media companies to be more transparent with users about their terms of service. The legislation, which her office said will be introduced in the coming weeks, would require dating platforms to enforce their rules designed to prevent fraud and abuse and hold them accountable when they do not.
In ProPublica and CJI’s first article about sexual violence and dating apps, Carole Markin discussed her rape, which occurred after she was connected, via Match.com, to a man with six convictions for sexual battery. She subsequently sued, seeking to force the company to conduct background screening. As a result of her suit, the Match.com site agreed to screen for sex offenders, but the company did not extend the practice when it acquired new dating apps.
Asked about Match Group’s latest step, Markin expressed mixed views. “I’m thrilled it’s happening,” she said. “But I sued in 2011. Look how long it’s taken.”
Brian Edwards and Elizabeth Naismith Picciani are reporting fellows for Columbia Journalism Investigations, an investigative reporting unit at the Columbia Journalism School. Funding for CJI is provided by the school’s Investigative Reporting Resource and the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.
Update, March 18, 2021: After this article was published, Match’s spokesperson emailed to note that “While the pricing structure [for background checks] is still being determined — any proceeds will go directly to Garbo, a nonprofit, to fund the costs of these searches and its availability to the wider community. Match Group will not receive any profits.” She added that such background information has “historically been difficult to access and cost prohibitive.”