Amazon duped people into signing up for Prime subscriptions, and also thwarted subscribers' attempts to cancel, the Federal Trade Commission alleged Wednesday in a lawsuit against the company
“Amazon used manipulative, coercive, or deceptive user-interface designs known as 'dark patterns' to trick consumers into enrolling in automatically-renewing Prime subscriptions,” the FTC alleged in a complaint brought in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.
Many of the specific details regarding Amazon's allegedly deceptive interfaces were blacked out of the 159-page complaint.
But one public portion alleges that Amazon has known for years about “nonconsensual enrollments,” and that company executives “slowed, avoided, and even undid user experience changes that they knew would reduce” those enrollments.
The FTC also publicly alleges that Amazon's tactics include using an interface that requires shoppers to say whether they will enroll in Prime before completing a purchase. While Amazon gives consumers the option of declining a Prime membership, that choice is “less prominent” than the enrollment option, the FTC says.
“Since at least 2018, Amazon has known that some consumers cannot find the less prominent 'No Thank You' link to decline enrollment,” the complaint alleges.
The agency also says Amazon "knowingly complicated the cancellation process for Prime subscribers who sought to end their membership."
Amazon revised its cancellation procedures shortly before the complaint was filed, but the FTC says that in the past, the “primary purpose of the Prime cancellation process was not to enable subscribers to cancel, but rather to thwart them.”
“Fittingly, Amazon named that process 'Iliad,' which refers to Homer’s epic about the long, arduous Trojan War,” the complaint alleges. “Amazon and its leadership ... slowed or rejected user experience changes that would have made Iliad simpler for consumers because those changes adversely affected Amazon’s bottom line.”
The FTC adds that Amazon's current cancellation procedure “still contains problematic elements.”
“Amazon still requires five clicks on desktop and six on mobile for consumers to cancel from Amazon.com,” the company says. “And both flows still require consumers to proceed through extraneous information unnecessary to the cancellation process.”
An Amazon spokesperson called the FTC's claims “false on the facts and the law.”
The spokesperson said the company makes it “clear and simple for customers to both sign up for or cancel their Prime membership.”
The spokesperson added: “We also find it concerning that the FTC announced this lawsuit without notice to us, in the midst of our discussions with FTC staff members to ensure they understand the facts, context, and legal issues, and before we were able to have a dialog with the Commissioners themselves before they filed a lawsuit. While the absence of that normal course engagement is extremely disappointing, we look forward to proving our case in court.”
Subscribers to the $139 a year Amazon Prime service receive discounts, free delivery of many purchases, access to streaming movies and television shows through Prime Video, and other benefits.
The complaint includes claims that Amazon violated the federal Restore Online Shoppers Confidence Act, which imposes several restrictions on companies that automatically renew consumers' subscriptions. Among other requirements, that law mandates that companies disclose all terms of the subscriptions in advance, and offer simple cancellation mechanisms.
The complaint comes two years after consumer advocacy groups including Public Citizen, Fairplay, Center for Digital Democracy and others asked the FTC to investigate Amazon's cancellation practices, as well as whether they violate the federal Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act.
Those groups drew on a report issued by the Norwegian Consumer Council (a watchdog funded by the Norwegian government), which said that subscribers who wish to cancel Prime memberships “are faced with a large number of hurdles, including complicated navigation menus, skewed wording, confusing choices, and repeated nudging.”