FTC To Tackle 'Dark Patterns'

The Federal Trade Commission plans to explore so-called “dark patterns,” or design interfaces aimed at duping consumers, the agency said Wednesday.

“'Bringing Dark Patterns to Light: An FTC Workshop' will explore the ways in which user interfaces can have the effect, intentionally or unintentionally, of obscuring, subverting, or impairing consumer autonomy, decision-making, or choice,” the agency stated. “For example, some sites sneak extra items into a consumer’s online shopping cart, or require users to navigate a maze of screens and confusing questions to avoid being charged for unwanted products or services.”

The FTC says it plans to explore issues including how dark patterns differ from brick-and-mortar tactics, how dark patterns affect consumer behavior, and what laws or norms currently regulate dark patterns.

The agency's move comes as tech companies face increasing scrutiny over claims about the use of “dark patterns.”

Last month, advocacy groups including Public Citizen, 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. alleged in a letter to the FTC that Amazon uses dark patterns.

“Amazon Prime’s subscription model is a 'roach motel,' where getting in is almost effortless, but escape is an ordeal,” the watchdogs wrote.

For its part, Amazon responded to the groups' claims by saying the company “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.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra recently attempted to take on “dark patterns” in a 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.

The FTC's workshop will be conducted virtually on April 29.

The agency is seeking research and other input by March 15.

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