The US Federal Trade Commission released a report on Friday showing companies are increasingly using sophisticated design practices known as “dark patterns” that can mislead or manipulate consumers into buying products or services or giving up their privacy.
The shadow pattern tactics detailed in the report include ads disguised as stand-alone content, making it difficult to unsubscribe or bill, burying useless key terms or fees, and tricking consumers into sharing their data.
The report highlighted the FTC’s efforts to combat the use of dark standards in the marketplace and reiterated the agency’s commitment to cracking down on tactics designed to deceive and trap consumers.
“Our report shows that more and more companies are using digital dark patterns to trick people into buying products and giving away their personal information,” said Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Office of Consumer Protection. “This report – and our cases – send a clear message that these traps will not be tolerated.”
For years, unscrupulous direct mail marketers and brick-and-mortar stores have used design gimmicks and psychological tactics like pre-checked boxes, hard-to-find and read statements, and confusing cancellation policies to get consumers to give up cash or data. As more commerce moves online, obscure patterns have grown in scope and sophistication, allowing companies to develop complex analytical techniques, collect more personal data, and experiment with obscure patterns to explore the most effective ones. The team’s report, which stems from a workshop the FTC held in April 2021, examined how dark patterns can cloud, subvert or undermine consumer choice and decision-making and can violate the law.
The Bringing Dark Patterns to Light report found dark patterns used in a variety of industries and contexts, including e-commerce, cookie consent banners, children’s apps and subscription sales. The report focuses on four common dark pattern tactics:
Deceptive consumers and stealth ads: These tactics include ads designed to look like independent editorial content; comparison shopping sites that claim to be neutral but actually rate companies based on salary; and timers designed to make consumers believe they only have a limited time to purchase a product or service when the offer is actually not time limited. For example, the FTC took action against a work-from-home scam operator for allegedly sending unsolicited email to consumers that included “from” lines that falsely claimed to be from news outlets such as CNN or Fox News. The body of those emails included links that sent consumers to other fake news online and ultimately directed consumers to sales pitches that represented the company’s work-from-home schemes.
Making it difficult to cancel subscriptions or billing: Another common suspicious pattern involves tricking someone into paying for goods or services without their consent. For example, bogus subscription sellers can overwhelm consumers with recurring payments for products and services they never intended to buy or don’t want to continue buying. For example, in its case against ABCmouse, the FTC alleged that the online learning site made it extremely difficult to cancel free trials and subscription plans, despite its “Easy Cancellation” promise. Consumers who wanted to cancel their subscriptions were often forced to navigate a difficult, long and confusing unsubscribe path on the company’s website and click through various pages of promotions and links that, when clicked, led consumers astray. cancellation.
Burying key terms and useless fees: Some obscure standards work by hiding or obscuring important information from consumers, such as hiding key limitations of a product or service in dense terms of service documents that consumers don’t see before they buy. This tactic also includes burying the garbage fee. Companies advertise only part of the total price of the product to attract consumers and do not mention other mandatory fees until the end of the purchase process. In its case against LendingClub, the FTC alleged that the online lender used prominent visuals to falsely promise loan applicants that they would receive a certain loan amount and pay “no hidden fees,” but hid the fees behind advice buttons and included prominent text. .
Encouraging consumers to share data: These vague forms are often presented as giving consumers a choice about privacy settings or data sharing, but are designed to intentionally direct consumers to the option that provides the most personal information. The FTC alleged that smart TV maker Vizio included default settings, allowing the company to collect and share consumers’ viewing activity with third parties, providing only a brief warning to some consumers that could easily be missed.
As noted in the report, the FTC has worked to keep up with the evolution of the types of obscure forms used in the marketplace. The commission sued the companies for requiring users to navigate a maze of screens to cancel recurring subscriptions, inserting unwanted products into consumers’ online shopping carts without their knowledge and experimenting with deceptive marketing designs.