Report finds most subscription services manipulate customers with 'dark patterns'

Most subscription sites use “dark patterns” to influence customer behavior around subscriptions and personal data, according to a pair of new reports from global consumer protection groups. Dark patterns are “practices commonly found in online user interfaces [that] steer, deceive, coerce or manipulate consumers into making choices that often are not in their best interests.” The international research efforts were conducted by the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN) and the Global Privacy Enforcement Network (GPEN).

The ICPEN conducted the of 642 websites and mobile apps with a subscription component. The assessment revealed one dark pattern in use at almost 76 percent of the platforms, and multiple dark patterns at play in almost 68 percent of them. One of the most common dark patterns discovered was sneaking, where a company makes potentially negative information difficult to find. ICPEN said 81 percent of the platforms with automatic subscription renewal kept the ability for a buyer to turn off auto-renewal out of the purchase flow. Other dark patterns for subscription services included interface interference, where desirable actions are easier to perform, and forced action, where customers have to provide information to access a particular function.

The companion from GPEN examined dark patterns that could encourage users to compromise their privacy. In this review, nearly all of the more than 1,000 websites and apps surveyed used a deceptive design practice. More than 89 percent of them used complex and confusing language in their privacy policies. Interface interference was another key offender here, with 57 percent of the platforms making the least protective privacy option the easiest to choose and 42 percent using emotionally charged language that could influence users.

Even the most savvy of us can be influenced by these subtle cues to make suboptimal decisions. Those decisions might be innocuous ones, like forgetting that you’ve set a service to auto-renew, or they might put you at risk by encouraging you to reveal more personal information than needed. The reports didn’t specify whether the dark patterns were used in illicit or illegal ways, only that they were present. The dual release is a stark reminder that digital literacy is an essential skill.

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