A huge appeal of the internet is the adventure into the unknown–the ability to learn new things and meet new people. However, over 20 years into the digital age, online platforms have become more dangerous than ever. In an unprecedented backslide, the already limited internet safety nets we had have been effectively dismantled.
In 2017, Big Tech essentially invented the trust and safety (T&S) industry and began investing heavily after two decades of inaction toward online harm. The industry was booming: As recently as last year, this new business segment was projected to reach up to $20 billion per year by 2024.
However, in the last year, there’s been a 180-degree turn in Silicon Valley with T&S purges at X/Twitter, Meta, online dating sites, and beyond. Team leads, headcount, and budgets have been slashed. People who deeply care about safety have been fired or chose to leave the industry. It’s increasingly clear that Silicon Valley’s beliefs are rooted in a growth-at-all-costs mentality. They do not care that the costs have and continue to be human lives–especially when shareholder demands continue to increase.
The nonprofit I founded, Garbo, launched technology last year to provide an easy and affordable way to see if someone had a history of harm–in essence, a new kind of online background check that tried to balance privacy and protection. While we initially found what we thought were great partnerships with online platforms, these companies quickly lost interest as soon as they got good press and regulators off their backs. After only a year and a half in the market, we chose to end our partnership with one of the leading online dating platforms and shut down the technology–due to threats from bad actors, ongoing problems with public records, and issues with online platforms and their underinvestment in trust and safety, but also due to three interconnected issues outside of tech that further enable the proliferation of gender-based violence in the digital age.
First, even if someone was convicted of a violent offense, it is increasingly difficult to access this essential information. For example, it costs $95 to run a background check in New York State, whether you’re seeking this information before a first date or as an employer. Additionally, backward–and dangerous–public record laws are increasingly enabling repeat violent bad actors to expunge and seal their violent criminal and sex offender records. A history of causing harm is the biggest indicator of future harm, but it’s increasingly difficult to access this information easily, accurately, and affordably.
Second, there’s the longstanding matter of underreporting by victims–due to fear, societal stigma, and mistrust in a flawed justice system. When victims do report gender-based violence, such as sexual assault or domestic violence, there is less than a 3% chance the person who harmed them will face any repercussions or have a public record created. Traditional background checks will thus miss up to 97% of potential gender-based violence offenders due to the lack of investigation and prosecution of these types of crimes.
Third, when a user goes directly to the platform and files a report to with the platform after experiencing sexual assault or other gender-based violence, tech companies refuse to install and pay for the necessary infrastructure to truly help victims or address the root issues of repeat perpetrators, with some apps even requiring the victim to file a police report and the offender be arrested before removing the predator.
Tech platforms using excuse after excuse to justify inaction alongside these regulatory issues have created a perfect storm that perpetuates a cycle of silence and violence which enables gender-based violence offenders to run rampant in society.
How many Tinder Swindlers–and much worse–are on these apps? A survey conducted by ProPublica in 2019 found that
Increasingly, citizens, NGOs, and local leaders are ramping up the pressure on Silicon Valley, but Big Tech will only act on pressure from the government and an overhaul to the background check system. To ensure safety in the digital age, we must:
- Create a nationwide, unified reporting system for gender-based violence perpetrators. At the federal level, this means cohesive and consistent reporting and processing in all jurisdictions of individuals who have been reported for gender-based violence offenses. Each jurisdiction should use standard terminology and operational procedures for these types of offenses, and share regularly updated records and reports with each other and with the public, including arrests, convictions, and criminal and civil court orders of protection. Those that fail to comply should face penalties to ensure accountability.
- Update the Fair Credit Reporting Act to Reflect the digital age. Rehabilitation should be the purpose of the justice system, but we also need to be grounded in facts – certain horrific crimes can’t ever be forgotten, and the data shows power and control-based offenders typically continue causing harm regardless of intervention. We must update the Fair Credit Reporting Act to stop allowing predators to pretend the past was written in pencil. For survivors, the pain is inked forever and they deserve better. By amending the FCRA we can ensure people and platforms can make informed decisions about their safety by enabling them to access historical records easily and without repercussions or threats from bad actors.
- Limit fees on individual access to public records. Local jurisdictions will do whatever they can to increase revenues, from petty parking tickets to charging exorbitant fees for accessing public records. Individuals should have free or low-cost access to public records. Instead, the fees should be raised from businesses accessing these records. A sliding scale based on a company’s revenue would also ensure large corporations, not small businesses, bear the increased financial burden and ensure government maintenance costs are covered.
By dismantling the barriers to reporting, embracing accountability measures, and standardizing information access, we can pave the way for a future where survivors’ voices are heard, and bad actors are prevented from causing future harm. Beyond these regulatory issues, we must continue forcing Big Tech to care about the problems they have created and the harm they have facilitated.
Fortunately, Congresswoman Annie Kuster and Congresswoman Jan Schakowski have already taken notice and are trying to steer efforts to protect people on dating apps. But if Big Tech and the government truly want to invest in trust and safety as they claim in their marketing language, true reform is needed. Until these systemic changes are implemented, unfortunately, the onus will continue to sit with the user and individual to protect themselves.
Kathryn Kosmides is the founder and CEO of Garbo.
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