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The minefield of modern dating: why businesses need to up their game on the small print


June 21, 2018 Elisabeth Costa, Katy King and Andrew Schein

Putting your photo and personal information on an online dating site is a hopeful act, whether you’re looking for a lifelong companion or something more… short term. It’s also a show of trust – and not just between you and your fellow users.

You are putting your trust in the dating site to use your personal data responsibly and ethically, and to connect you with people who share your interests and outlook on life.

It’s right then that as part of an international project on terms and conditions for digital goods and services, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) last week concluded an investigation into the practices of online dating sites. The CMA’s advice to consumers and dos and don’ts for businesses make for sobering reading.

It is also a stark reminder of the challenges facing consumers in fast-paced, quickly evolving digital markets – exactly the kind that the recent Consumer Green Paper began to outline and address.

If you’ve ever engaged in the calculus of love, hope and trust, here are some things that might surprise you:  

  • You might not be talking to a real person. Yup, that’s right. One of the CMA’s main ‘don’ts’ for dating sites was to not mislead members by communicating with them via provider-generated dating profiles.
  • There’s probably not as many fish in the (online) sea as your dating site would have you believe. It’s more likely an inflated figure that includes all past and present members across multiple sites.
  • Even if you’ve found true love, or happily opted for a summer of singledom, the dating site is probably holding onto your data. And possibly even still displaying your profile.
  • Your profile may be on sites that you didn’t sign up to. Indeed one troubling aspect of the CMA’s investigation was ‘complaints from people who said they had signed up for sites featuring explicit adult content without realising that they were doing so’.

And one that probably won’t surprise you at all:

  • It’s really, really hard to cancel your subscription and delete your data.

The CMA’s investigation touches on issues that BIT is working on – data ethics, digital market regulation, and trust in online markets. One constant across these issues is the importance of clear, comprehensible terms and conditions, and privacy notices.

We are working with the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to investigate how behavioural insights could increase engagement and comprehension of online terms and privacy policies. In light of the CMA investigation, dating sites might find this work both interesting and useful.  

Consumers rightly expect a basic level of responsibility from companies. Unfortunately, this expectation sometimes seems to lead them to ignore warnings or indications to the contrary.

A particularly concerning online study by contract law researchers Adam S. Chilton and Omri Ben-Shahar looked at how participants responded to  a market research survey company, ostensibly representing a dating app, that explicitly stated they would be irresponsible with their data. The app might have been fake, but participants did not know this.

Participants who saw a standard privacy policy willingly disclosed risky behaviour and information about their identity, but so did participants who saw a simplified warning note showing five unexpected – and concerning – items from the privacy policy.

Of course, if people read the privacy policy and terms and conditions for every online service they used, they would likely need to dedicate a significant chunk of their lives to this effort. Privacy researchers Aleecia McDonald and Lorrie Faith Cranor estimated the time required to read privacy policies to be about 200 hours per year per American, worth roughly $781 billion per year. For this reason, there are limits to the buyer-beware logic of helping consumers understand how companies will use their data.

Smarter disclosures are an important first step. Another experiment, this one involving the installation of a fake software package that included malicious spyware, found that summaries did reduce downloads and increase uninstalls of fake programs that contained malicious spyware.

For consumers to give informed consent, it’s critical that they have noticed and understood the parts of a policy that they did not expect, like the fact that their dating profile may be shared on multiple sites. In the long term, we urge companies to test their customers’ understanding of how they use personal data, just as they test engagement metrics in every other area of their business.

We’ll be publishing the findings of our experiments on engagement and comprehension of online terms and privacy policies later this year – sign up to our mailing list to be among the first to read the results.


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