Interview: Returning Online Dating Association CEO Talks Regulation and Mission

The Online Dating Association is an independently run organisation dedicated to maintaining standards within the industry.

It was founded in 2013 by a number of industry players who believed it was time to step up and take responsibility for the set up and preservation of these standards. As a trade body, they ensure the sector is well represented and can have a strong voice with the UK Government, the media, financial service providers, and more.

George Kidd was the ODA’s first Chief Executive but left in 2015 to take an executive role promoting responsibility in the gambling sector. He has recently returned to his original role with the ODA and has been kind enough to give us his exclusive thoughts on online dating regulations.

Read the full interview here:

You’re returning to the online dating industry after a couple of years away. Do you think much has changed in the sector since 2015/16?

GK: Yes, and no. I see how online and mobile dating – digital dating – is the starting point for about a third of all relationships in the UK. There is a greater recognition now that these services are the norm and are used and enjoyed by millions. But that does add to the duty on us all, to set and maintain standards that result in trust and ensure we are here to stay.

There is clearly still a broad mix of services on offer, national and international as well as niche and with different streams: some offering instant contact and casual relationships while others have certainly added value and variety in the ways in which people can meet.

I am no entrepreneur, but can see that past challenges remain: giving users the service and experience they want in a crowded market that ranges from high-cost introduction agencies, to premium subscriptions models, to “freemium” offers and apps; and the opportunities for social interaction that come with social network services. The decision by Facebook to offer a form of dating platform gives further substance to this variety.

And, as ever, the sector has to deal with what might be considered the cost of success: every new and long-term relationship takes a couple of customers out of the market!”

What have been the takeaways from your recent work in gambling regulation? Do you see similarities between regulation in the gambling sector and regulation in online dating?  

GK: The sectors have many differences. Few would regard dating as a “vice” or addiction , as many regard gambling. Gambling has its own sector-specific regulator in the Gambling Commission. That raises questions over the focus and role of trade bodies in that space and has led me to set out lessons I think we can learn from. First, that we should look at the makeup of the sector, the standards of behaviours and the risks in deciding how to balance and deliver value for the membership, the sector beyond the membership and our users.

We should assure politicians, regulators, the media, and our customers that we are committed to standards and to a great and safe experience. That means we have to be as inclusive as possible. We need the support of existing and new members and associates to deliver this and to make sure the Government engages with the sector through a body they know and trust. In this process the ODA badge should remain a symbol of a businesscommitment to the standards. But we should be open to working with anyone and everyone, to create and promote the best practice, and should be ready to make existing and new ODA Date Safe material available for use by any mainstream service.

Getting a very, very broad buy-in to the best practice, guidance etc. feels more valuable as a service to our customers and as an assurance to regulators, than the Association anchoring itself in some form of policing of a code on one set of the players in the market.

I fear the gambling sector has, for now, lost the trust of the political and regulatory community. Digital dating, on the other hand, feels “normalised” and valued. We need to build on this.”

What is the key message the ODA is looking to promote under your leadership? How are you going about making your voices heard?

GK: I obviously want to talk more with our members and others before offering some concrete script. But I am sure the message has to be confident and positive……dating services are an established part of everyday life. They matter in social terms, as the source of millions of new relationships. We should celebrate that achievement.

We have innovative service providers, but the sector is small and little understood, relative to social media and other parts of the digital economy. We need to unite, to have a strong and credible voice with national and trans-national Governments and regulators. We need to be able to show these folks and others that we are serious about standards and committed to quality and safe services.

In my first weeks back, I have reached out to counterparts in the social media field, I have taken action to register with the child protection online body that will become the UK Council for Internet Safety – who will lead when thought is given to ID issues and social media levies, and to the DCMS given their call for action to keep children off of services.”

What can an organisation like the Online Dating Association do that businesses cannot do individually?

GK: “We can look at how sector-wide good practice can be developed; without being prescriptive and without saying service providers individually cannot go further if they chose.

When able to speak for a significant element of the market we can access regulators, Ministers, officials and so on, to inform and influence in ways firms would find difficult. The recent activities of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) are a case in point. One of my first messages was to the CMA proposing a sit-down to understand where they are vis-à-vis dating services and to ensure our approach to things like contract renewals is in line with practice elsewhere – or to bring back clarity and reasoning if they see it differently.

This ability to engage goes beyond national boundaries. I am hearing leading players express interest in an organisation that can present good practice, checklists and guidance that shows the sector is united in a responsible approach in all its markets. I understand how our value could increase dramatically for some if our work has traction in the many markets in which they operate. I do not think that is at all inconsistent with continuing to deliver in the UK and giving information, support, a voice and recognition to those who had the vision to create the ODA and support our work since 2014.

We are able, on occasion, to address media issues, such as safety or fraud, that individual businesses would struggle to address in terms of the sector at large – and be unable or unwilling to address if they, or a competitor, were the subject of a piece.”

Do you expect to see the online dating industry facing more regulation as of 2018? What are the relative impacts of GDPR and the CMA investigation?

GK: “I am doubtful. Membership bodies can point to the risk of new laws as grounds for wide membership and a strong voice. I do not believe the issues that arise are on a scale or of a nature that demands laws and regulations. That is not to say we should be complacent. The CMA’s work and the ongoing sensitivities over personal data, GDPR etc. means it’s important regulators with existing powers properly understand our sector and do not take ill-informed, knee-jerk actions. Or, that we can be indifferent if there are actors in the market damaging the reputation of the sector and trust in services.

As I recall it, various one-off issues over data and alleged fake profiles in 2013/4 did not have direct or cumulative impact – except for one or two entities. Dating services may now be the rule rather than the exception socially, but there is always a fine line to be walked with public trust and the reaction of the media and political community, if there is doubt or disbelief over a sector’s commitment to doing the right things. That seemed to be something the gambling community struggled to come to terms with in ways that the drinks sector, for example, did. In founding the Portman Group to promote responsible behaviour by drinks businesses and responsible use of alcohol one leading player said “I want my business to be around in 100 years time”. That’s not a bad test to apply when running a business.”
Visit the ODA’s website here.

Dominic Whitlock

Dominic is the Editor for Global Dating Insights. Originally from Devon, England he achieved a BA in English Language & Linguistics from The University of Reading. He enjoys a variety of sports and has a further passion for film and music.

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