All is fair in love and law

In Bollywood films, finding love means catchy song and dance numbers between star-crossed lovers. But, for over 400 million millennials in India currently searching for that special someone, the reality is very different. GC investigates how in-house lawyers navigate the evolving world of online dating.

India is a predominantly conservative society, with courtship customs that have been passed down for generations. However, times are changing: a combination of improved smartphone technology (and accessibility), affordable internet services and a growing middle class has prompted a cultural shift.

Over the last six years, the Indian matchmaking scene has undergone a complete makeover. Apps such as Tinder, OkCupid, Aisle, TrulyMadly and Woo – to name but a few – are transforming the way a whole generation of Indians are finding love. Although the uptake of this new technology has been slow in rural regions, dating apps in urban cities continue to grow at staggering rates.

As the industry thrives, it falls to the business people and in-house counsel to discover ways to overcome legal obstacles surrounding privacy, marketing and IP, in an effort to strike a balance and find success during a period of cultural change – while operating in an environment still very much reflective of traditional customs.

What’s love got to do with it?

India at its heart remains a country steeped in tradition – notably so, considering the melting pot of cultures and customs present. The practice of arranged marriages dates back centuries, but remains a conventional way to find a partner. But in 2014, almost all at once, mobile dating apps from international and domestic companies flooded the Indian matchmaking market.

‘Over the course of 12 months, we had Tinder, TrulyMadly, Woo and Aisle, amongst others, all come up and showcase what they have,’ says Able Joseph, founder and CEO of membership-based dating app Aisle.

Aisle is just one of a number of Indian-owned-and-operated dating apps vying for market share in an increasingly crowded mobile dating space. Its strict prescreening process underpins a curated community that brings together users of similar interests. Other homegrown apps include TrulyMadly, which matches up locals on the basis of interests and preferences, and Woo, an app that focuses on finding matches for well-educated professionals.

‘There was a sense that times were changing and there was a new need that people were having that nobody was really addressing. That is probably what led to a lot of the applications being launched at the same time,’ says Joseph.

He believes this was the beginning of a cultural shift and, since launching Aisle six years ago, he has seen India become wealthier, better educated and more accepting of western customs:

‘I think a lot has changed in India. When we launched, India was still a super-conservative society and, ever since, we have seen signs of incremental change: a small wave of feminism, the #MeToo movement and Section 377 [of the Indian penal code, which criminalised homosexual acts as “unnatural”] being abolished. There’s no doubt that, slowly, India is liberalising itself. All of these directions that we are moving in, in particular the pace of change, I don’t think that sort of speed is seen in other parts of the world.’

Mumbai local Chinmayi Shinde represents a new generation of educated, career-driven women. Working in pharmaceuticals – specifically contraception – for the last four years, she says she has seen a rise in the number of people, particularly women, using dating apps in major hubs like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata.

‘Educated and professional women are more inclined to use such apps, since they are looking for people from a similar background and are open to meeting new people,’ says Shinde.

‘The Metro cities see higher penetration of these apps. Most women move to cities to pursue either education or career. More access to smartphones and cheap internet has helped a lot of people explore the world of internet and apps.’

Swiping right

Despite the fact that dating is still a relatively taboo subject, Indians are swiping right on Tinder more than any other dating service on the market. Heading up in-house legal operations is Jared Sine, chief legal officer and secretary of Tinder’s parent company, Match Group.

‘India for us is a huge opportunity; we see a generation of young members of Indian society who are really exploring who they are, how they date and how they find love,’ he explains.

‘There are some cultural challenges in India because of some of the cultural norms surrounding how relationships and marriages and all those things start – it’s a little bit different than some other areas in the world. So we had to really think about the best way to approach that. In terms of legal, our initial approach was to take the best practices and best standards that we have in other countries, then apply them to what we are doing in India.’

The legal framework governing mobile matchmaking apps in India is very much still evolving. Witnessing this cultural and legal change is veteran matchmaking service, BharatMatrimony. The company has been in the dating market for almost two decades and is the flagship brand of

‘ is a pioneer in online matchmaking in India, having rolled out their services in 2000. Laws and policies have been dynamically changing ever since. Over the years, our team has built expertise in legal matters related to the matchmaking industry,’ says head of legal and regulatory practice at BharatMatrimony, Ravichandran Subramanian.

‘Dating is a fairly new concept in India, but our team is equipped to deal with any changes in this category.’

Starting as a computer-based service, the company has diversified operations to include a mobile dating app in order to remain competitive.

Laws of attraction

Despite a significant cultural shift surrounding dating ideals in India, local laws still reflect the nation’s conservative roots. A lack of specific regulations requires in-house lawyers to be more strategic when implementing internal polices.

‘There is certainly an element of trying to see where regulation is today and predicting where it’s going to go, then subsequently taking actions to push yourself there,’ explains Sine.

‘That’s a big part of the job of being a chief legal officer, being general counsel. If you’re only focused on today, you’re not looking far enough ahead.’

The legal framework governing mobile matchmaking apps in India is very much still evolving.

Joseph draws similarities with the advent of ride-sharing apps when explaining legal reform in the mobile matchmaking industry – something he sees as inevitable: ‘When Uber came to India, there were no laws that restricted it, because all our laws belong to the era where we were all travelling in bullock carts. So there needs to be reform, and it’s very slow, but it is definitely happening and is something we need to be conscious of as a business.’

Despite the current absence of a legal framework specifically regulating dating apps, certain general laws governing computers and the internet do apply. The Information Technology Act, for example, covers issues around wrongful disclosure and misuse of data, including data collected by mobile matchmaking services – data that could be seen as particularly sensitive in India.

The privacy debate

When Sine first joined Match Group in 2016, GDPR had just been adopted by the European Parliament and was still almost two years’ away from enforcement – with many companies yet to firm up their data privacy policies. Fast-forward to 2019 and privacy protection is a contentious issue dominating news headlines the world around. It is an issue that has also grabbed the attention of lawmakers in India.

‘We have always taken privacy seriously. These laws and regulations coming into effect make people think about things a little differently, and we said we should build a global privacy programme that needs to meet all of the applicable GDPR standards. So if you’re a user in the US, or if you’re a user in the EU, if you’re a user in India, if you’re a user in Japan, you have the same protections and the same rights, the same access to data, the same rights to have your data deleted as anyone in another country where the laws may be more restricted,’ outlines Sine.

‘Instead of taking a country-by-country approach, we took a global approach, and it has actually paid off. We’ve now got a programme across all of our companies and all of our brands that brings everybody to the same level.’

Joseph believes it is only a matter of time before dating app consumers begin to push for better privacy protections. On a local level, concerns around privacy are already beginning to develop among the middle and upper classes.

Marketing Tinder across television, radio and online platforms was key to the app’s success in India.

‘When you look at a normal consumer using mobile apps in India, be they Uber or food tech, their concern is not really privacy because they have to deal with their daily sort of things,’ he says.

‘But there is a certain community of affluent Indians who are aware of international laws and who are aware of the privacy issues, in particular with the things that can go wrong. For those people in particular, this is an issue that does matter.’

Marketing matchmaking

One of the major legal issues surrounding the growth of dating apps in India has been marketing. In-house lawyers often have to work closely with marketing managers to ensure campaigns meet strict legal guidelines – not uncommon by international standards, but with its own quirks when considering the culture and tradition apparent in India.

‘In a lot of countries, Tinder just grew virally. In India, there was some viral buzz, but not on the same level we saw in European countries or in the US,’ says Sine.

‘We built a local team there that really started focusing on creative marketing around how we message the story of Tinder. Legal plays a key role in marketing – we have to find a way to make sure our IP is protected and that our marketing messages are accurate.’

Marketing Tinder across television, radio and online platforms was key to the app’s success in India. From a legal perspective, advertising laws in India are not specifically problematic – particularly considering the number of jurisdictions in which Tinder is used. But there’s more to finding success than following the letter of the law, says Sine.

‘There wasn’t anything specific in Indian law that made it difficult or otherwise obstructed our ability to be able to market. There are some countries where if you are an online dating platform it is very difficult to market on television and, fortunately, India is not one of those countries,’ he says.

‘Oftentimes people use laws to try and apply cultural norms that maybe need to be changed. That forced us to think about how we were going to structure these campaigns: what channels are we going to be working with? Are they going to be influencers or are they going to be regular PR agencies? How are we going to contract those companies to make sure we are getting what we need and they’re getting what they need?’

To have and to hold

With the explosion of dating apps across India, protecting intellectual property has come to the forefront of concerns for in-house counsel. Dating service veteran BharatMatrimony has seen the focus shift within its legal team as a result of increased market competition.

‘Over the years, apart from regular legal functions, the legal team has evolved to focus on IP, since it throws up new challenges all the time,’ says Subramanian.

‘We fiercely protect our IP and quickly act upon any violation of our trademarks and copyrights. We have been very successful in doing that and have obtained favourable decisions in many cases at the courts. The low online entry costs, high legal expenses and difficulty in scanning and detecting violations in the vast online space often lead to big- and small-time competitors trying to misuse our trademarks and confuse users by diverting traffic that legitimately belongs to us. Our team works with other teams internally to detect violations and pursue them legally.’

Global conglomerate Match Group has also implemented IP protection practices across its entire business.

‘We deal with the lawsuits, we file for tax purposes, we protect our IP – like the one we filed against Bumble, to ones where we are not the asserting party. Some people look at us because we are a big company, we have deep pockets,’ says Sine.

‘[In India] there were the typical legal hurdles you had to get over, making sure our IP is protected and that we have those elements taken care of and our messages are consistent with the legal requirements on truth and accuracy and all those things.’

As long as we both shall live

Moving forward, as the regulatory framework surrounding dating apps develops in India, privacy remains a forefront issue for legislators and regulators.

‘They want to make sure that people know where their data is being processed, they know what rights they have in relation to who is getting access to their data and ownership over that data,’ says Sine.

‘There are a whole host of new proposals that are being discussed at the legislative level in India that we need to be aware of as a business.’

In particular, there is a push from lawmakers for data collected in India to remain in India. At present, there are no regulations in India that state where and how data can be collected, stored or processed. But regulators in India are currently working towards drafting a comprehensive piece of legislation for data privacy, which could have a major impact for international apps such as Match Group’s Tinder, where all data is stored and processed in the US.

‘We’re aware that those kind of discussions are happening, but we will wait to see how the laws turn out. We are engaged, we are having conversations through our trade associations to make sure our perspective is shared, as well as other perspectives of some of the platforms that are out there,’ says Sine.

‘Our approach is to partner with regulators to try and find common ground in order to help expand not only our footprint as a business, but also the ability for people to have more choice.’

It seems that traditional approaches to dating in India are being superceded by that empowerment of individual choice. As technology continues to improve, mobile matchmaking services will continue to thrive – but how regulators and lawmakers balance a bright future with societal norms will be a delicate decision.