A new study by the Mozilla Foundation and Consumers International has found that the dating app Tinder charges users dramatically different prices for access to its premium Tinder Plus service. The study raises key questions about how the personalized demographic data of app users (like age, race, gender, and sexual orientation) might be used to create discriminatory “differential pricing,” both in dating services and beyond.
The study, which builds on findings from UK consumer watchdog group Which? and Australian consumer organization Choice, did not find statistically significant price differences based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. It did, though, reveal that older users were charged more for Tinder Plus, which allows users unlimited likes and the ability to reverse your last swipe. It found extensive variation in the prices offered to test consumers: In the Netherlands, 96 test users were quoted 31 different prices for the same service, with prices ranging from $4.45 to $25.95. Researchers also found correlations that they described as “worthy of further investigation” — for example, straight participants in the Netherlands were quoted 10.6% more than LGBTQ participants, and men in the United States were quoted 6.5% more on average than women.
A Tinder spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the company has never considered sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, or any other demographic characteristic when determining prices, and that the wide range of prices shown to users were likely the result of randomized tests.
But while Tinder denied that the variety of prices Mozilla and Consumer Choice found had anything to do with demographic information, it is one of few companies that has publicly embraced “personalizing” pricing based on age. In 2015, the company launched explicit age-based pricing tiers for its premium service and has faced pushback from consumers ever since. In 2019, the company agreed to pay $23 million to settle a class action age discrimination lawsuit brought by California users over age 28, who were charged twice as much as younger users for the company’s subscription services. As a condition of the settlement, Tinder agreed “to substantially halt [its] discriminatory practices,” at least within the state of California. In August 2021, the 9th Circuit undid the settlement, but the company plans to end its “age-based discounts” going forward. The researchers were not aware of any other major dating apps — many of which are owned by the same company, Match Group — that have offered explicit age-based pricing.
The Tinder spokesperson compared the company’s age-based prices to discounts for young people and older adults at places like movie theaters and museums. However, ending explicit age tiers does not appear to address the huge price differences that Mozilla and Consumer Choice found in their study.
Tinder is not the only company that has toyed with using data mined from consumers’ devices to personalize pricing — though most have stayed away from protected demographic traits. In 2012, Orbitz began showing customers browsing on Mac computers higher hotel prices than comparable customers browsing on PCs, because the company found that Mac users were, on average, willing to pay more for hotels. In 2016, Uber’s head of research told NPR that riders were willing to accept up to 9.9 times a normal fare when their phone batteries were low (a metric the app tracks so that it knows when to go into battery-saving mode), but said the company does not consider phone battery level when setting prices. Last year, an app called Smash began offering grocery discounts for people between ages 13 and 24 — and requires its users to submit a selfie in order to pass a “facial age scan.”
This type of price personalization has led to concern among regulators. In 2012 — and again in 2018 — the UK government opened investigations into companies using data collected from consumers online to charge “personalized” prices for their products. In 2015, the Obama White House published a report on the issue, which raised concerns, but found that “we have not yet entered an era of widespread personalized pricing.” In 2018, however, a study conducted by Deloitte and Salesforce found that of 500 surveyed companies, 40% had used AI to “tailor pricing and promotions in real time.”
Ashley Boyd, Mozilla’s VP of advocacy who directed the research on Tinder Plus, said that the consumers her team interviewed want more transparency into companies’ pricing schemes. But until more research is done or companies decide to be more open, pricing will stay "a bit of a black box."