Dating apps threatened with government regulation unless they improve safety

Dating apps threatened with government regulation unless they improve safety
  • PublishedSeptember 18, 2023

The federal government is giving the industry until the middle of next year to develop and implement a voluntary code of practice, warning companies it will step in and force them to act if they fail to clean up their platforms.

“The levels of harassment, abuse and technologically facilitated abuse are at too high levels,” Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth said.

“And if we are going to end violence against women and children in one generation, then we need to address these online dating apps.”

Earlier this year, the federal government brought representatives from the sector face-to-face with experts, advocates and law enforcement agencies to discuss the situation playing out online.

An investigation by the Australian Institute of Criminology last year found three-quarters of online daters had been subject to some kind of online sexual violence in the past five years.

Kath Albury from Swinburne University has spent years researching behaviours on online dating and social media platforms, and said users reported a wide variety of problematic experiences.

“The harms range from receiving unwanted contact or images — unwanted texts and images that maybe are using slurs or sexually explicit when a person hasn’t consented to receiving sexually explicit communication,” Professor Albury said.

“And they range from that kind of day-to-day, the equivalent of flashing in the offline environment or on-street harassment — someone yelling out a comment to you, that’s what it feels like with that kind of contact — to, at times, racist or discriminatory language, transphobic language, stalking in some cases, and in other cases quite threatening behaviours — so moving from the dating apps on to other social platforms to stalk, or offline stalking or indeed physical harassment.”

Amanda Rishworth speaks at a press conference
Amanda Rishworth says the dating apps have until the middle of next year to take meaningful action.(ABC News: Ian Cutmore )

Professor Albury said the handling of complaints was a key area where users wanted to see improvement.

“There could be clearer communication around what happens when you report an unwanted contact or a questionable or threatening contact, and what the app does with that information,” Professor Albury said.

“There could also be a clearer sense of how fast you can expect to get feedback or a very personal response from the app if you report an issue.

“One of the things that dating app users are concerned about is the sense that complaints go into the void, or there’s a response that feels automated, or not personally responsive in a time when they’re feeling quite unsafe or distressed.”

Ms Rishworth argued the sector could use development of new technology as a way to be more proactive in protecting users.

“It is time for the industry to lift its standard, but it is also time for the industry to look at the unique position it is in,” Ms Rishworth said.

“With technology comes the opportunity for these dating apps to actually provide interventions, to identify bad behaviour before it becomes criminal … to stop someone that may be behaving badly online, to actually either remove them from online or provide some education to them.”

Michelle Rowland and Julie Inman Grant at a press conference inside parliament house
Michelle Rowland, pictured with e-Safety commissioner Julie Inman Grant, says there are ideas to improve safety standards.(ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

Communications Minister Michelle Rowland said the government wanted to give dating apps time to act, but was not scared of stepping in and passing Commonwealth legislation if required.

“Industry has been responsive to our calls for improvements, but we want to build on that momentum as well,” Ms Rowland said.

“It would be in those key areas that we expect to be included in the code — complaints handling, responding to complaints, dealing with law enforcement, making sure that there are safety features that are embedded in these systems.”

Ms Rowland said there had already been ideas thrown around about ways to improve safety.

“There was a suggestion of having some sort of register of users,” she said.

“Victim-survivor groups and other advocacy groups don’t have a set response on this because, in some ways, it does lead to a false sense of security.

“But there are other ways to embed that safety by design … making sure that the onus isn’t only on the victim-survivor, but making sure we’ve got perpetrators being answerable.”


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