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Should Dating or Social Networking Sites Be Required to Screen Users?

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By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on May 18, 2009 1:30 PM

In what appears could be a tragic story of online chatting, turned-to-stalking, turned-to-violence, the AP reported on a 23 year old New York woman who was allegedly killed by a jilted online acquaintance. Although details are a bit sketchy at this point, the case does raise questions about online safety, particularly in the context of online dating sites.

According to police allegations, Raymond Dennis (aka Mike, as he was known online), met 23-year-old Nimzay Aponte online via AOL and Local-Hookupz.com (a dating site). Aponte allegedly refused to meet Dennis after their initial online encounters, but this was not enough to dissuade Dennis. According to the New York Daily News, "Dennis allegedly tracked Aponte to a job fair she was attending" where he found her talking to a group of men and women. He became enraged, stormed off, but came back and fatally stabbed Aponte at the same job fair the next day.

Fans of chat and/or social networking sites may say that one of their best features is the degree of accessibility they grant to users, their friends, and the public in general. However, it may be this very degree of accessibility that brings with it a degree of risk, some of which users knowingly accept but some of which may be just an unintended consequence of putting information up on the Web.

Although it isn't clear from the circumstances described whether Dennis was able to find Aponte using information he gathered on the Internet, many online applications such as Twitter or Facebook are sometimes used to update a user's status with what they are doing at a given day, hour, or moment, for that matter. Users of such websites and/or applications often have the ability to restrict who sees their profiles, activities, and/or are their friends. But as a user decreases their "visibility", they may at the same time feel that they lose some of the benefits offered by the sites.

As noted by the Daily News, the suspect had a fairly extensive police history as a convicted drug dealer with more than a dozen arrests, plus prior convictions for hitting a woman and harassing his ex-wife. Considering how Craigslist has taken steps to address prostitution and safety issues on its site (particularly in light of recent media coverage of Craigslist-related violence), perhaps the issue of screening users of dating and similar websites should be raised too. Some online dating sites do offer various forms of screening for their users, but it is an entirely different question whether laws should require such sites to do so. Alternatively, laws could also require sites to disclose that they do not screen their users' criminal background.

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