FTC Urged To Investigate Amazon Prime Over Cancellation Hurdles

Amazon uses “dark patterns” to manipulate people from canceling their Prime memberships, advocacy groups allege in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission.

“Amazon Prime’s subscription model is a 'roach motel,' where getting in is almost effortless, but escape is an ordeal,” Public Citizen and six other organizations write, citing a new report by the Norwegian Consumer Council, a watchdog funded by the Norwegian government.

That report, released Thursday, says that people who attempt to cancel their Prime memberships “are faced with a large number of hurdles, including complicated navigation menus, skewed wording, confusing choices, and repeated nudging.”

For instance, the report says, people who want to cancel must first scroll through several statements about the benefits they will lose.

When users persist and actually cancel, they receive an email message stating, “Oh no! Your Prime benefits are ending!” according to the report.

That email includes a button that people can click on to instantly resubscribe to Prime, researchers say.

“This is the roach motel in action: unsubscribing from Amazon Prime takes navigating at least 5 pages, but undoing that choice only takes a single click,” Public Citizen and the others write to the FTC.

The letter was also signed by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Center for Digital Democracy, Center for Economic Justice, Consumer Federation of America, Electronic Privacy Information Center and U.S. PIRG.

“Digital deception should not be a viable business model, and the FTC has a responsibility to curb unfair or deceptive practices deployed to subvert and confuse consumers who intend to terminate an online service,” they say.

The groups are asking the agency to investigate whether Amazon's practices are deceptive, as well as whether they violate the federal Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act which requires companies to offer consumers “simple mechanisms” to stop recurring charges) and the Can-Spam Act (which prohibits deceptive email subject headers).

Amazon stated Thursday that it “makes it clear and easy for Prime members to cancel their subscription at any time, whether through a few clicks online, with a quick phone call, or by turning off auto renew in their membership options.”

The advocates' letter comes as tech companies face increasing scrutiny over reports of “dark patterns.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra recently attempted to tackle “dark patterns” in a recent set of proposed regulations implementing the state's privacy law.

That law, which took effect earlier this year, gives state residents the right to learn what information has been collected about them by companies, to have that information deleted, and to opt out of the sale of that data to third parties. In October, Becerra proposed rules requiring businesses to offer opt-out methods that are “easy for consumers to execute” and that “require minimal steps.”

In 2019, Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Virginia) and Deb Fischer (R-Nebraska) unveiled legislation that would have prohibited large platforms from using “dark patterns” in their privacy policy interfaces.

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