WASHINGTON- Tech companies sometimes trick users into signing up for a service or sharing information that they might not otherwise agree to by using subtle tactics and marketing on their websites and apps, such as surveys that extract personal information or designs that obscure privacy settings.
But these practices — commonly referred to as “dark patterns” — are coming under increased scrutiny from the federal government.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner (D) has joined a group of bipartisan House and Senate lawmakers on legislation known as the DETOUR law which seeks to prohibit these practices.
Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission, the government’s consumer protection agency, said it would step up the crackdown on dark models that are already illegal and can trick consumers into subscribing. The FTC has also announced this month that it will undertake a major overhaul of its general guidelines on digital advertising.
“For years, dark schemes have allowed social media companies to use deceptive tactics to trick users into handing over personal data without understanding what they are consenting to,” Warner said in an email. “The DETOUR Act will end this practice while working to bring in a level of transparency and oversight that the tech world currently lacks.”
“Consumers should be able to make their own informed choices about when to share personal information without having to navigate intentionally misleading interfaces and design features deployed by social media companies,” Warner said.
Although the name “dark models” sounds intimidating, internet users have probably encountered them on legal websites.
Website designs that manipulate users may include intentionally obscure unsubscribe buttons, pop-ups that encourage users not to leave the platform, and countdown timers that create a false sense of urgency to purchase items .
A 2019 Princeton University study scanned 11,000 shopping websites and found examples of dark patterns on 11% of sites. The most popular shopping sites were more likely to have dark patterns, the study found.
“Social media companies often trick users into giving up their personal data – from their thoughts and fears to their likes and dislikes – which they then sell to advertisers. These practices are designed to exploit people; not to serve them better,” Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said in a statement. The group supports the DETOUR law to try to stop the practice.
Last fall, the Federal Trade Commission issued a new application policy to step up its response to illegal dark schemes that “trick or trick” consumers into subscription services. It came in response to a growing number of complaints about financial harm caused by misleading listings and auto-renewals that trap consumers into ongoing subscriptions that are nearly impossible to cancel.
“Over the years, unfair or deceptive negative option practices have remained a persistent source of consumer harm, often burdening buyers with recurring payments for products and services they did not intend to purchase. buy or they didn’t want to keep buying,” the FTC wrote in its 15-page statement.
FTC guidelines state that companies must “clearly and conspicuously” disclose subscriptions and honor cancellation requests. An FTC spokesperson said the agency is still working on the app and has no new updates.
Prohibit dark patterns
The Reduction of Deceptive Online User Experiences Act, or DETOUR law, would go further to give the FTC more power to crack down on dark schemes by setting new limits on how the biggest online companies can market and request information.
Specifically, the legislation would place limits on how internet companies with more than 100 million monthly users could request information in an effort to prevent them from tricking users into handing over their personal data.
The bill states that companies cannot use an interface that has the “substantial effect” of preventing users from making informed decisions. They could not enroll users in behavioral experiments without their consent or develop compulsive experiments, such as autoplay videos, aimed at children.
“This legislation allows regulators to better guard against the deceptive and exploitative practices that have become commonplace at many large tech companies and have had disproportionate impacts on children and underserved communities,” said Colin M. Gray, associate professor at Purdue. University that studies human-computer interaction.
A bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers is pushing the issue. In the Senate, Warner is joined by Sens. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John Thune (R-SD). On the House side, Delaware Democrat Lisa Blunt Rochester and Ohio Republican Anthony Gonzalez are co-sponsors. The House Energy & Commerce Committee and the House Judiciary Committee held several hearings on the matter.
But even with bipartisan support, the bill would face a rocky road in the Senate, where Warner would have to get all Democrats and at least nine other Republicans to support it.
The legislation has the support of the American Psychological Association and two major groups that advocate for child safety on the internet, Fairplay and Common Sense.
“The DETOUR Act is an important step in curbing Big Tech’s unfair design choices that manipulate users into acting against their own interests. We are particularly excited about the provision that prohibits designs that cultivate compulsive use in children,” Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, said in a statement.