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A bill that would ban the use of Internet dating sites to solicit sex or dates with people under 18 years old was endorsed by the government Friday.

The government wants the bill, compiled by the National Police Agency, enacted during the current Diet session, officials said.

It is aimed at curbing the rising number of crimes related to such sites, including rape and murder as well as prostitution.

Under the bill, operators of Web sites that provide online dating or matchmaking services would have to post a notice warning away people under 18 and would have to confirm the age of users.

Operators neglecting to conduct age verification checks would face fines of up to 1 million yen or a maximum prison term of six months.

The bill defines problematic online dating sites as “services for posting personal information on people who want to interact with those of the opposite sex with whom they are not yet acquainted.”

It also defines them as services that enable people to contact by e-mail anyone whose details they are interested in.

Critics of the bill say its definition of “online matchmaking sites” is so ambiguous that it may open the way for excessive regulation of Internet services that enable strangers to meet online.

They said a loose interpretation of the two definitions would enable police to regulate legitimate sites, such as those where people want to contact others who share the same interests or search for former classmates.

Internet dating sites have become increasingly popular due to the ease of access from mobile phones and the anonymity provided to users.

The NPA issued a report in December saying there were 793 criminal cases linked to Internet dating sites from January through June 2002, about 2.6 times more than the corresponding period the previous year.

A number of women who accessed sites offering dating services have become victims of murder, rape, extortion or robbery, the NPA said.

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