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 several new reports from global consumer protection groups. Dark patterns are “common practices in online user interfaces.” [that] lead, deceive, coerce or manipulate consumers into making choices that are often not in their best interest.” The international research effort was led by the International Consumer Protection and Protection Network (ICPEN) and the Global Privacy Protection Network (GPEN).

ICPEN implemented 642 websites and mobile apps with a subscription component. The assessment found one dark pattern used in almost 76 percent of platforms and multiple dark patterns in almost 68 percent of them. One of the most common dark patterns discovered was privacy, where a company made potentially negative information difficult to find. ICPEN said that 81 percent of platforms with automatic subscription renewal retain the ability to turn off auto-renewal from the buyer’s purchase flow. Other dark examples for subscription services include interface intervention, where desired actions are easier to perform, and forced action, where customers must provide information to access a certain feature.

comrade GPEN explored dark patterns that could encourage users to violate their privacy. Almost all of the more than 1,000 websites and apps surveyed in this review used deceptive design practices. More than 89 percent of them used complicated and confusing language in their privacy policies. Interface intrusion was another major offender here, with 57 percent of platforms making it easiest to choose the least protective privacy option and 42 percent using emotionally charged language that could affect users.

Even the most discerning of us can be swayed by these subtle cues to make suboptimal decisions. These decisions can be harmless, like forgetting to set up a service for automatic renewal, or they can put you at risk by encouraging you to disclose more personal information than necessary. The reports did not indicate whether the dark patterns were being used illegally or illegally, only that they existed. The dual issue is a reminder that digital literacy is an essential skill.

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