Online dating in the UK had moved from being a niche activity to a part of everyday life. It is enjoyed daily by millions and is the largest single source of new relationships.
Proving dating services online has some exciting, stimulating but also challenging and sensitive issues. People are, by definition, looking to make new contacts, new friendships and new relationships. This can create uncertainties, vulnerabilities as people hopefully move into those new friendships and relationships.
The feeling within the sector in the last few years was that it was time we took some collective responsibility for our market and our users as well as exercising responsibility as individual service providers.
In summer 2013 a group of dating site providers took and acted on the advice that this is a market where players should not rely solely on the framework of privacy, data and consumer law to protect the market and those in it.
The law and regulations applicable to the sector clearly matter and should be respected. But laws and regulations have to deal with the generality of industries and businesses to which they apply and our statutory regulators are often thinly stretched and not able to do much other than react to consumer harms.
We, like other sectors, saw the need to give regulations “life” and to draw out, highlight and give meaning to those that particularly matter for online daters. The ODA aims to pre-empt and prevent problems by testing members against our Code of Practice before they can come into membership – and afterwards.
Our Code of Practice and our advice for the public on the best and safe use of services was published in December 2013. The Code is short, simple and outcomes-based. It focuses on the core issues for users: the clarity and honesty of the services offered, the protection of user’s personal information, the proper operation of services and the advice and help we give users to make dating as enjoyable and safe as possible.
Membership of the ODAThe ODA was founded by thirteen leading players. The group has national and international providers as well as specialist/niche operators and others brands who wish to offer their customers a dating service through partnership and out-sourcing arrangements that can account for thousands of individual sites.
The founders were a diverse bunch serving different urban and rural communities as well as religious and ethnic communities. They accounted for a significant proportion of the UK market but by no means all of it.
There was and is no wish to run the ODA as a closed shop. Membership is open to all those who commit themselves to the principles in the ODA Code of Practice and who can demonstrate this commitment to our policies and processes.
Membership was opened in December 2013 to all online dating service providers in the product categories covered by ODA (See “Scope of ODA Membership” below). And membership is open to entities based anywhere in the world if they are offering services to UK users. Member companies include business based in the US, Continental Europe and Australia. UK-based members trade in these markets but also the Far East and elsewhere.
Leading brands and a number of niche providers have come on board including businesses offering online dating solely on mobile divides though new Apps. The ODA is keen to grow further in order to maximise the coverage of the Code and the protections it offers and to strengthen our voice with Government and others.
Consumer ComplaintsThe ODA has no wish to get in the way of member companies and their users. We expect members to deal promptly and responsibly with complaints and we do not want that to change. The ODA will monitor trends in the market and has the Code and adjudicatory ability to take action if there seems to be widespread and serious problems affecting many or all users. Otherwise we will always look to members to deal with individual complaints.
Scope of ODA MembershipA decision was taken that the ODA should be focused on online dating services that are designed to help people find new relationships, friendships and love. We believe there is a difference between such services and adult services where the primary purpose is some form of sexual entertainment or sexual contact. This is generally evident from the marketing material, site format and the profiles permitted. The ODA position is not making a moral judgement with this decision but recognising the fundamentally different characteristic and purposes of services. For now the ODA does not think it appropriate to have adult sites and services within membership and for its logo and support to be presented on such sites. But we realise that some providers offer both adult and mainstream products separately and we have welcomed such firms into membership in relation to their non-adult business.
We realise that there are a number of businesses with a direct interest in online dating but who do not themselves run services. We will be looking to extend a form of membership to hardware and software businesses, financial, other professional service firms and search and social network providers as well as partners of white label businesses.
Industry and Consumer GuidanceAlongside the Code we have produced a first set of guidance for the public on how to enjoy services safely and what to do in the event of difficulties. This builds on first meetings with consumer and other groups. We have had talks with national crime bodies with a shared interest in preventing and punishing the minority who set out to con, deceive or harm others. We will continue to review, update and actively promote our guidance in partnerships.
Alongside our work on standards we have a role speaking for the industry and in briefing our members on key legislative and other developments that affect them and their users. We have spoken with the Information Commissioner’s Office about how personal data should be stored and saved and on ways in which we can properly share information about those who might be trying to scam, harm or offend other users. We have had events addressing new regulations about cancellation rights online, scam prevention. We have events planned on data-protection and VAT changes on cross border trade
The ODA is building its relationships with internet search providers, social network players and the mobile network operators and Internet Service Providers as they work on filters and other access controls. We and they share users and we have a shared wish that users have a safe and enjoyable time online.
As a new trade body we want to work closely with anyone and everyone who can help us deliver this outcome.