Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 21 July 2023

Govt. is going after ‘dark patterns’

Source: By The Indian Express

The Centre asked e-commerce companies to refrain from using “dark patterns” on their platforms that may deceive customers or manipulate their choices. The government has set up a 17-member task force to prepare guidelines on protecting consumers against such practices. Consumer Affairs Secretary Rohit Kumar Singh had held consultations with various stakeholders on this issue.

What are dark patterns?

Dark patterns, also known as deceptive patterns, is the term used to describe the ways in which websites or apps make their users do things that the users do not intend to do or would not otherwise do, as well as to discourage user behaviour that is not beneficial for the companies.

The term was coined by Harry Brignull, a London-based user experience (UX) designer, in 2010. The Internet is replete with examples of dark patterns.

For instance, that annoying advertisement that pops on your screen while visiting a website, and you can’t find the cross mark ‘X’ to make it go away because the mark is too small to notice (or to click/tap). Worse, when you try to click/tap on the tiny ‘X’, you may end up tapping the ad, opening a new tab that redirects you to that ad’s website.

Another example is of certain dating apps that require the user to type the word ‘delete’ if they want to delete their account permanently — the pop-up, showing ‘yes’ and ‘no’ options, has been done away with.

Similarly, although Instagram allows its user to deactivate their account through the app, it needs them to visit its website if they want to entirely delete their account.

All these extra steps can be seen as speed bumps that discourage users from getting off such platforms even though they may want to.

In an interview with Wired magazine, Brignull said: “Lots of companies will make it hard for people to leave… They are going to get around to it eventually, but if they stay for an extra 10 percent of the time, or 20 per cent, the accounts might live just a little bit longer. And if you’re doing that en masse for hundreds of thousands of people, that translates to enormous amounts of money, for people who are going to leave anyway.” But many other instances of dark patterns aren’t as obvious, as a report by the explanatory journalism website Vox noted.

Numerous websites and apps trick their users into allowing them to track their location or gather their data. Apps like Instagram send a pop-up to its users asking if they want the service to “use your app and website activity” to “provide a better ads experience”. The Vox report noted: “Instagram uses terms like “activity” and “personalised” instead of “tracking” and “targeting”, so the user may not realise what they’re actually giving the app permission to do.”

How to spot ‘dark patterns’ on websites

The best and most effective way to recognise dark patterns is to educate yourself about the tricks used by websites and apps to influence your decisions. The website founded by Brignull (and now run, according to information on the site, by a team of legal scholars) (formerly lists various types of dark patterns, and explains them in detail.

Brignull told Wired: “If you know what cognitive biases are and the kind of tricks that can be used to change your mind to persuade you to do things, then you’re less likely to have them trick you”.

What are governments doing about ‘dark patterns’?

India isn’t the first country to seek action against dark patterns. The issue has been a subject of discussions for quite some time now. In recent years, countries like the United States and United Kingdom have passed legislation to curb dark patterns.

In March 2021, California passed amendments to the California Consumer Privacy Act, banning dark patterns that made it “difficult for consumers to exercise some of the rights that the law provides, like opting out of the sale of their data”, Vox reported.

Earlier, in April 2019, the UK issued a set of guidelines — later made enforceable under its Data Protection Act, 2018 — which prohibited companies from using “nudges” to draw underage users into options that have low privacy settings.

Companies have been sued for indulging in dark patterns of behaviour. Last year, an Australian court fined Trivago, a part of US-based online travel firm Expedia Group, AUD44.7 million (about Rs 244 crore) for falsely presenting “hotel rooms as being the cheapest available, when it was in fact promoting rooms of paid advertisers.

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