Four surprising things we learned in 2019 about startups and sexual offenses
So far this century, one tech startup after another has reshaped the way that we live. Facebook transformed social interaction. Uber changed how we get around. Tinder changed how we date. While these companies have been highly forward-thinking, they have also persistently struggled to solve crucial challenges regarding background checks and user safety.
2019 brought many of these issues into the limelight. Here are four of the most surprising things we learned about startups and sexual offenses in 2019.
- Uber has recorded thousands of sexual assaults
At the beginning of December, Uber released its first-ever U.S. Safety Report. While it was considered a significant step forward for the transparency of Uber, the report also highlighted the company’s problems with sexual offenses.
The company disclosed that between 2017 and 2018, it received nearly 6,000 reports of sexual assault. In 2018 alone, Uber received 235 rape allegations and 280 attempted rape allegations. While these numbers were alarming to the public, Uber has asserted that they represent just a tiny fraction of its annual rides.
- Users aren’t always the ones at risk
While the rape and sexual assault figures included from Uber’s safety report got the lion’s share of analysis and attention, perhaps the most surprising revelation from the report was that passengers were not the only ones at risk. Uber reported that 42 percent of the sexual assault reports that it received between 2017 and 2018 came from drivers. In 45 percent of cases, passengers were the ones being accused -- whether by drivers or other passengers.
As more startups explore Uber-like models -- from delivery services such as Postmates and Shipt to the moving-day service app Bellhops -- it is vital for their leadership to recognize that both customers and workers face sexual assault risks.
- Tinder doesn’t screen for sex offenders (and neither do other dating services)
One of the biggest headlines in startup news this year was, Tinder Lets Known Sex Offenders Use The App. It’s Not The Only One. That headline from a report co-published by ProPublica, Buzzfeed News, and Columbia Journalism Investigates found that dating services such as Tinder, Plenty of Fish, and OkCupid do not conduct criminal history background checks or sex offender registry searches on their users.
For the report, Columbia Journalism Investigates "analyzed more than 150 incidents of sexual assault involving dating apps." In 10 percent of those incidents, the dating app the victim was using matched them with a person "who had been accused or convicted of sexual assault at least once" in the past.
All three dating platforms are owned by Match Group, the company that got its start in the online dating industry with Match.com in 1995. While Match.com does screen its users, Match Group has so far not rolled that protection out to its free dating platforms.
- MeetMe overlooked a highly active user’s sex offender status
Founded in 2005, MeetMe is a free online service that encourages users to "meet, chat, and have fun with new people." The program is often regarded as a dating app, though it is essentially a platform through which people can meet and chat with one another via livestream video. For years, this app has been flagged by some sources as dangerous for teen users. Despite the criticisms, MeetMe has claimed that, unlike many dating apps, it does screen for registered sex offenders. That claim came into question recently when it came to light that one of the platform’s most active users is a registered sex offender.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Deonte Fisher was released from prison in February. His name appears on the Illinois sex offender database and should have been flagged by MeetMe’s background checks -- but it wasn’t. His conviction is for molesting a 15-year-old minor when he was 20.
Can Startups Do More to Uncover Sexual Assault Risks?
Today’s startups are evolving to respond to the demands of fast-changing industries. Strategies for vetting workers, screening users, and creating a safe environment for all need to adapt as well.
These cases and others highlight a few things. First, they show how important thorough background checks are, even for modern, game-changing businesses in tech. Second, they shed light on how these startups can potentially work to uncover new safety risks that even background checks are not always equipped to highlight -- but only if they opt to prioritize transparency.
Is it reasonable for Uber to screen passengers as well as its drivers? How do sex offenders slip through the cracks even when companies put screening measures in place? Should dating app users run their own background checks on every match before they meet up? Startups will grapple with these questions in 2020 while the customers who use their services determine which strategies to use to ensure their own safety.
Michael Klazema is Chief Marketing Technologist at VODW.com and has over two decades of experience in digital consulting, online product management, and technology innovation. He is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments.