The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the USA recently imposed a fine of $ 520 million on video game maker Epic Games for violating users' privacy and tricking millions of users into making unintentional purchases using dark patterns.
Of the total $520 million, which is FTC's largest penalty so far, $245 million was allocated as a refund to users affected by the company's use of dark patterns.
Regulators across the globe have become concerned about the use of dark patterns by consumer-facing Internet companies.
According to a recent report by Economic Times, even the Indian regulators are looking to crack down on the use of dark patterns in the e-commerce space.
What Are Dark Patterns?
Dark patterns are misleading user interfaces that trick the users into performing an action that is beneficial to the company. For instance, "drip pricing" is a technique companies use where a low price for a product or service is shown to users initially. Only when the user is about to check out with the goods are they shown the actual (higher) cost of a product with other additional charges and taxes included.
In other cases, if a user signs up for a free trial of software or service with a credit card, the service automatically starts deducting payment after the trial period is over. The automatic deduction feature is usually only mentioned in the fine print that users often ignore to read.
Others purposely make cancelling a subscription or closing an account difficult by introducing confusing steps or asking them to log in from a desktop instead of a mobile to avail of the cancellation feature.
Amazon, for instance, was criticised by EU regulators for a long multiple-step process for closing a Prime account. Now, it has simplified the process in Europe in order to pacify users and regulators.
These extra steps or misleading user interfaces have a single objective – to nudge the user towards not closing an account or stopping a service, leading to continued revenues for the companies.
The matter becomes serious when it concerns companies like Epic Games, where a significant number of its 400 million users are children who might be more vulnerable to being misled through these tactics. Countries like the US are already working on creating laws to stop companies from misleading users. It has found around 30 such patterns being used by tech companies so far and had even asked Amazon to refund $ 70 million in 2014.
What Issues Has ASCI Highlighted?
The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) has highlighted several dark patterns that need to be tackled with the growing clout of social media.
ASCI has focused on four key areas – bait and switch, drip pricing, false urgency, and disguised advertising.
As the name suggests, in the 'bait and switch' technique, users are enticed with low prices or higher quality products, but at checkout, the product is either a different one or the price is significantly higher.
'False urgency' is a common technique seen on e-commerce platforms. For instance, the phrases "one seat remaining" or" discount ends in 30 minutes" are often seen on e-commerce sites, helping to create a sense of shortage.
Disguised advertising has recently received a bit of attention since it is difficult to verify whether an influencer or a page is recommending a product or service in exchange for a fee, or whether it's a normal recommendation.
Why Dark Patterns Are Harmful to Users?
Ultimately, dark patterns use subtle psychological manipulations to nudge users in a direction that usually benefits the platform and not the user, making it ethically questionable.
Dark patterns lower a user's ability to choose for him and increase the difficulty of even the most basic tasks. Further, Meta has faced allegations of using these patterns to get users to reveal more personal data publicly.
The audiences that are most vulnerable to such patterns are those who are not well-versed with technology, especially children and the elderly. The $70 million refund that Amazon paid its users in 2014 was due to a children's game where parents' accounts were charged without them having any involvement.
Users must become more aware of the subtle psychological warfare against them by big tech companies. At the same time, governments need to crack down on these techniques to make the internet a safer place for vulnerable audiences.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!