In 2020, dating apps have fundamentally changed the way interaction, dating and even marriage take place in society. There are endless possibilities of meeting new people without geographical bounds now, and dating apps have started including non-cishet members slowly. With premium subscriptions to these dating platforms, one could sit and swipe in South Asia and be connected with a person from North Africa in a matter of minutes.
Interestingly, the growth of digital infrastructure and BSNL’s initial policies in the 1990s and early 2000s introduced longer mobile license periods, empowering telecom operators to provide a wider variety of services to consumers.
In her chapter on dating applications in the book Global Digital Cultures, Vishnupriya Das elaborates on how these regulatory changes in Indian telecom led to an increase in the uptake of medium-specific technologies (smartphones) by citizens. Using these smartphones, users were able to connect with digital platforms – in this case, with dating apps.
These disruptive platforms encourage those who are shy and approach people in person. Another category in India which benefits is those who wish to reclaim their romantic lives rather than resorting to arranged marriages and parental intervention.
Gender Bias On Dating Platforms
However, the world of online dating is marked more by thorns than roses for womxn (a more comprehensive term than ‘women’, includes trans women), trans men and non-binary genders. In a bid to be progressive, dating platforms have attempted to include trans status on their platforms since 2016, but the implementation of such a move often falls short of protecting the community from harassment and having their profiles deleted.
In 2016, Tinder added 40 new gender options to help transgender people have better dating experiences on their app. This addition was done in collaboration with GLAAD, a California-based non-governmental organization working towards making media narrative LGBTQ friendly. Unfortunately, even after the expansion of gender options, members of the trans community have reported arbitrary bans and profile takedowns.
Abuse On LGBTQ Dating Apps
Dating apps which cater to a primarily cisgendered heterosexual audience often have opaque takedown policies when it comes to their community guidelines and terms of service agreements. Users have criticised platforms for auto-banning their accounts based on the volume of reports against them, and if the platform has a significant number of transphobic users then incorporating more gender options by design does little to practically include the trans community.
In the dating app market, there are niche apps for the LGBTQ community. One of the first mobile dating apps to come out in 2009 was Grindr, which emerged as an app for gay men. As with other apps, Grindr can be used for a variety of romantic, sexual or platonic relationships. Users have criticized the level of anonymity on the app, as it asks only for a valid email address for verification. Although anonymity was designed to attract users from the gay community, it has led to a world of rape and extortion for victims of catfishing.
Recently in Delhi, corporate employees using Grindr were extorted by a group of online predators and the victims handed over their valuables fearing social stigma. Since the online world recreates the evils of society, predators find an easy avenue to target users on dating apps.
Womxn And The LGBTQ Community In India
Although Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was decriminalised by the Supreme Court in 2018, there is a long road towards acceptance of non-binary genders, trans and queer people in India. Following the judgement, there is a market for dating apps which cater to the LGBTQ community – some of these apps in India apart from Grindr include Blued, Delta (a homegrown app), Her, Blendr and Romeo.
In January 2020, (the UK-based app) Butterfly was launched in India. It aims to “put transgender folk first” because of the high rejection rates and biases the community faces on mainstream apps.
Womxn have an equally hard time on dating apps, with unwanted pictures, messages and the dangers associated with meeting strangers off the internet. To increase privacy by design, Tinder has incorporated a feature called My Move, which allows users to send the first message and filter out unwanted matches.
Bumble, Truly Madly and Woo all sport the same feature. In a country where womxn are not allowed to own cell phones and there exists a wide gendered digital divide, the onus should be on platforms to raise awareness to potential harm. For instance, TrulyMadly created an ad titled Creep Qawwali – highlighting how women are stalked and sent problematic images and messages on dating platforms.
Tackling Collection Of Personal Data
A larger question which users of dating apps need to confront regards the kinds of personal data collected by dating platforms. For instance, apps such as Tinder, Bumble, OkCupid, Happn – amongst others, store the messaging history and photos of users. The geo-location model of many dating apps has also led to problems – only OkCupid, Bumble, and Badoo protect the location data of users.
Storing and sharing data around the HIV status of users, their political views, drug use habits and sexual orientation is a goldmine for companies and has the potential to identify and target users. Many of these categories fall into the title of ‘sensitive personal data’ conceptualized in the Personal Data Protection Bill 2019. Since the envisaged Data Protection Authority has a heavy influence of the central government in its hiring, it is unclear how much government access these datasets will face.
In 2020, the conversation should be oriented towards increasing user awareness through campaigns and ads, expanding consumer support teams and making the community guidelines transparent and understandable for all users. Without these measures, there are numerous red flags waiting to unfold for the increasing population of dating platforms.[The article is co-written by Kazim Rizvi and Trisha Pande, Policy Manager at The Dialogue.]