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Pervasive ‘Dark Patterns’ Are Fooling People


A person holds a credit card in one hand and types on a laptop with the other hand.

In a new report, the FTC laid out the multitude of “dark pattern” techniques used by apps and websites to confuse and trick users into spending more money online.
Photo: Ivan Kruk (Shutterstock)

As much as you think you have full control of you and your wallet, it’s getting increasingly difficult for anybody using an app or a website to avoid getting suckered into surrendering your money or personal information to misleading or tricky UI design.

In a report released Thursday by the Federal Trade Commission, regulators said that there were more and more companies employing tactics to get users to relinquish their user information, buy products they don’t want, or sign up for services they might not otherwise.

The report is based on a public workshop the agency hosted last year, taking into account testimony by consumer advocates, researchers, and other industry experts. Much of what the FTC describes is already well-documented online and those keeping track have been aware of these deceptive tactics for years. Still, putting all the most prominent tactics in one place does offer a sobering reminder of just how entrenched anti-consumer practices are on both scammy and more legitimate websites and services.

Regulators said sites are disguising ads and promotional messaging to lure users into purchasing services. Tech companies and online retailers also lure users into signing up for subscription services while obscuring costs or charges, then making it difficult to actually cancel. Some dark patterns include confusing users in dense terms of service to obscure key limitations of products or junk fees attached to their use.

The report lays out example after example of design elements that are specifically designed to sap money from users’ wallets. There are examples of sites forcing users to click through several pages of promotions and links that direct users away from canceling a service subscription.

The FTC noted companies like Credit Karma, saying the company conducted tests to see if users were more likely to click on links if it showed they had been “pre-approved” for credit cards, even though that’s untrue for the vast majority of people who would click. In a recent complaint, the FTC alleged the company went ahead with the misleading ads anyway.

Although the term “Dark Patterns,” first coined in 2010 by UI designer Harry Brignull, might seem broad, its all based around giving users the illusion of choice and awareness, all while hiding their intent of getting users to pay for unneeded or unwanted services or harvest their user data in order to maximize profits.

The report cited how products often include user interfaces that don’t allow users to definitively reject data collection and make it difficult to choose what data the company decides to collect. It could be as simple as graying-out the choices the company doesn’t want users to select, or making data collection the default option when loading an app or site.

One panelist cited by the FTC mentioned how when setting up Android phones, users are encouraged to enable location data collection simply by the way Google asks them to set up their phones, without explaining how that data can be used to determine where you live, work, further details about your political or religious affiliations, or potentially even whether you might be seeking an abortion in the age post Roe v. Wade.

The FTC, led by noted big tech antagonist Lina Kahn, recently made overtures about cracking down on big tech data gathering. Still, that’s a tall order considering just how much data is already out there.

The FTC has rung the bell about dark patterns before, especially among major companies. Back in March, the agency said they were investigating Amazon for its manipulative user interface they argued was tricking users into signing up for Prime memberships. They also attacked Amazon alongside Apple and Google for allowing kids games on their app stores that advertised themselves as “free” while allowing children to rack up multiple charges just by playing the game and tapping on certain buttons.

Other consumer advocate groups have tried to call out corporations for their use of dark patterns. Consumer Reports’ Dark Patterns Tip Line has posted dozens upon dozens of examples of misleading UI or confusing consumer contracts meant to deceive users on everything from Microsoft Edge browser to Pottery Barn marketing emails.

Though as much as the FTC promises more enforcement and promotes all they’ve already done, it would be near-impossible for any one agency to address every single instance of misleading UI. The American Data Privacy and Protection Act has promised to legislate against these pesky and misleading UI practices, but it seems the ambitious bill remains stuck in Congress.



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