Posts Tagged ‘online dating

19
May
14

Byte-Sexual: Recognizing the evolving relationships with our electronic devices

Does the virtual assistant on your smartphone just “get you”? For many smart phone users, interacting with a natural speech-recognizing, intelligent, digital assistant – ever-present on their devices – has become a way of life. It was impossible to imagine just a few years ago that we would become a society dependent on our bots, for everything from driving to a place we’ve never been to seeking out the latest movie reviews.  Perhaps predictably, some individuals prefer interacting with artificial intelligence over human beings.  Others have even developed ‘feelings’ for their digital devices.  Yes, there is even a name for such a fetish: mechanophilia.

For the past several years, the popular online dating website Match.com has been defending a lawsuit alleging that the company utilizes fake user profiles in order to encourage real members to renew their subscriptions. The suit also claims that Match does not adequately vet their profiles, and that the site may be filled with hundreds of profiles that are inactive or scams.

The concept of interacting with a ‘bot’ or artificial intelligence is not new.  Many of us have clicked a ‘live chat’ help button, only to quickly realize that we were ‘speaking’ with a computer program designed to help resolve our issue before a paid employee was required to spend time figuring it out.  But the technology driving modern artificial intelligence like Apple’s Siri is astounding – and only getting better.  Soon it may be difficult to discern the difference between live chat with a human being as opposed to a programmed bot.  For website users seeking purely online interaction or flirtation, the distinction may be unimportant.

The use of ‘virtual’ or ‘fantasy’ profiles is not new (or unique) to the online dating world, but recently the government has begun to question whether this practice is “fair” or “deceptive.”    But is there anything inherently ‘wrong’ with individuals flirting with bots or artificial intelligence?  Is it possible that some socially awkward or shy individuals may actually prefer virtual relationships rather than the thought of real human interaction?

Director Spike Jonze recently released his film Her,” staring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, about a man who falls in love with his operating system. Eventually, the OS, who goes by “Samantha,” tells the main character, Theodore, that she must leave (along with all the other operating systems). The implication is that the incredible number of relationships she was having with humans became too much for her and that she and the other systems no longer wanted to be among humans.

The question seemingly posed in the film was why any human would choose interaction with a bot over interaction with another human. A more relevant question might be:  must we question why?

Many of the online dating websites using virtual profiles do so with full consumer disclosure, including statements on landing pages, in user agreements, and through distinct labels placed on the profiles and any messages they may send. Despite the disclosures, millions of individuals willingly interact with these programs, and apparently enjoy the process.  The role of the government in regulating, or even prohibiting, this form of entertainment must be questioned.

This issue has increasingly made headlines.  Just this month, a man petitioned the State of Florida to allow him to lawfully wed his laptop computer. In the case of Chris Sevier, the laptop wasn’t exactly his original object: His computer was filled with porn and due to this, he claims he “fell in love” with his computer and began “preferring having sex” with it over living persons. Sevier, in fact, argued that his “love” for his computer should be validly recognized by the court. While an extreme and perhaps humorous example, this case is illustrative of a trend on the horizon that can no longer be ignored: People are developing relationships with their digital devices and programs.

Maitresse Madeline, a fetish webcam model, has also spoken out about this very issue. Earlier this year, a man paid $42,000 for a single webcam session with her. Madeline believes that this exorbitant sum can be explained by the fact that individuals are actually paying for the virtual relationship, not paying in spite of it. According to CNET, Madeline told Kinky.com, “They’re often paying for the ambiguity that a Webcam relationship can create and that relationship over Webcam is, essentially, their fetish.”  Sometimes, it seems, virtual relationships on the Internet are exactly the experience users seek. Madeline went on; “They often want to be whoever they can dream up over the Internet and prefer to only have a relationship online.”

This new world of virtual love has already been alluded to within the confines of the law. Michael Froomkin, a law professor at the University Miami, leads an annual conference called We Robot,” where the goal is simply to get people thinking about the legal implications of a world with robots in it. According to Froomkin, it’s not unusual for technology to get ahead of the law.  “You design stuff to make it work and you don’t think a lot about the legal and social consequences,” Froomkin told NPR. “So by the time the lawyers get in the room, the standards are already baked and the stuff is already deployed.”

Froomkin’s point is a valid one and has played out repeatedly, as the law lags behind technology. Although we may be years off from a fully functional, human-like bot with a deeply developed personality like “Samantha,” we do currently live in the world of Siri’s and virtual profiles. The future of bots may not be here just yet, but who’s to judge how humans should be permitted to interact with the bots of their choice? The one aspect that distinguishes humans from bots is free will.  As creatures born with free will, should we not have the choice to interact with, and be entertained by, our digital creations?

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07
May
13

Dangerous Intersections

Could a webcam model also be a paid escort and an active member of a “hookup” dating site?  Naturally, the answer is “yes,” but at what costs?  Blurring the lines between these adult-themed user categories creates an uncharted hybrid of legal exposure, for both, the individual model/escort and those operating the associated websites.  However, more and more frequently, we’re seeing this sort of crossover in the live webcam, escort, and casual dating industries.  Historically, escort sites have legally operated on the basis that their advertisers do not engage in sexual activity for hire, but simply offer paid companionship services.  Live webcam operators routinely engage in sexual activity on cam, but are typically prohibited from any “real world” meetings with users, so as to avoid concerns with prostitution and solicitation.  Finally, adult dating sites have avoided prostitution-related issues based on the fact that they merely serve as a forum for social interaction, and should any sexual activity occur between users, it is not in exchange for money or anything of value. However, when the same individual acts as a webcam performer, an escort, and a hookup site user, these important legal distinctions and assumptions can start to break down.

Importantly, no law prohibits an escort from having a normal, romantic dating life, complete with sexual activity.  Similarly, live webcam models are not legally prohibited from offering companionship escort services, or submitting profiles to casual dating sites in search ofan occasional tryst.  The legal danger arises in the not-so-rare scenario, linking all of these activities together in some way. For example, escorts who provide sexually explicit performances via webcam must be careful to separate any discussion of escort activities or reference to online escort profiles, to avoid sending the wrong message to users.  Without clearly distinguishing between the webcam and escorting activities, the government will likely argue that any explicit webcam activity is indicative of the services the model might provide when acting as a paid escort.  Whether such argument would be successful in a court of law is another matter, but the risk exists.  Escorts should be similarly cautious when linking to any dating site profiles that reference sexual activity, so as to avoid conveying any misconception regarding the limited, non-sexual nature of the activities that the escort is willing to engage in during a paid session.

While compelling legal arguments can be made in support of the legality of live webcam sites, escort sites, and hookup sites, those legal arguments can be negatively impacted by linking such activities together in some manner. In a perfect world, escorts would never engage in sexual activity, webcam models would never meet users offline, and adult dating site participants would never be compensated for anything having to do with erotic interaction.  Unfortunately, however, reality is messy.  Escorts and webcam models do have social lives, and are entitled to engage in healthy sex lives, just like anyone else.  But as the escort, webcam, and adult dating business models become more popular and profitable, site operators will be forced to make difficult but important decisions regarding the extent to which any co-mingling of activity will be permitted or referenced on the site.

In the immortal words of The Offspring: “You gotta keep ‘em separated.”  But with many operators permitting posting of user generated content with limited or no pre-publication review, along with real-time social network feeds, the ability of a site operator to control the intersection of these three areas of online adult entertainment can be challenging.  That said, pre-publication review of user posts/profiles creates its own set of complications, and may negatively impact the legal protections afforded to online service providers under federal statutes like Section 230, the DMCA, and Section 2257.  Thus, actively attempting to control linkage of these various activities could impact the site operator’s legal defenses to claims arising from the publication of this third-party content. Coherent operating policies should be adopted in connection with the publication of any such material, taking into consideration all of the factors.  However, given the serious legal consequences attached to the promotion of sexual activity for hire in the United States, site operators, escorts, and performers should be forewarned regarding these dangerous intersections.