The Union Government, on Thursday, has released draft guidelines to curb “dark patterns” used by online platforms. With an aim to regulate these dark patterns, the government has sought feedback on the guidelines released. People can leave their feedback on the official website of Department of Consumer Affairs, until October 5.
Dark patterns refers to the tactics used by internet-based companies to trick users into agreeing to certain conditions or clicking a few links. Such acceptances and clicks swamp consumers' inboxes with promotional emails they never wanted, making it difficult to unsubscribe or request deletion.
It also refers to practices which mislead people into paying for items or services they did not intend to, originally.
According to the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, these proposed regulations have been drafted after due consultations with numerous stakeholders, including law firms, and e-commerce platforms, like Google, Flipkart, RIL, Amazon, Go-MMT, Swiggy, Zomato, Ola and Meta. They will be issued under section 18 (2) (l) of the Consumer Protection Act 2019.
BOOM explains what these guidelines entail and how do they envision to strengthen and protect consumer interests.
What do we know about dark patterns?
The nine-page draft document defines “dark patterns” as “any practices or deceptive design patterns using UI/UX (user interface/user experience) interactions on any platform; designed to mislead or trick users to do something they originally did not intend or want to do; by subverting or impairing the consumer autonomy, decision making or choice; amounting to misleading advertisement or unfair trade practice or violation of consumer rights.”
Social media companies and big tech firms, like Apple, Amazon, Skype, Facebook, LinkedIn, Microsoft, and Google, exploit these patterns to their benefit. Recently, Amazon came under fire in the European Union for its convoluted, multi-step cancellation process. Following this, the company streamlined its cancelling process for its customers in European nations.
Similarly, LinkedIn users often receive unsolicited, sponsored messages from influencers, disabling which is a difficult process with multiple steps that requires users to be familiar with the platform controls.
Sponsored video ads between reels and stories on Instagram, pop-up messages nudging to sign up for YouTube Premium and masking the last seconds of a video with thumbnails from other videos on YouTube, are all examples of dark patterns leveraged by companies.
What are the different kinds of dark patterns enumerated in the guidelines?
The draft guidelines have specified about 10 dark patterns which interfere with the user experience on any platform. They are as follow-
- False urgency- It means falsely stating or implying the sense of urgency or scarcity so as to mislead a user into making an immediate purchase.
- Basket sneaking- It means inclusion of additional items such as products, services, payments to charity/donation at the time of checkout from a platform, without the consent of the user.
- Confirm shaming- It refers to the use of a phrase, video, audio, or any other means to instill fear, shame, or ridicule in the mind of the user in order to nudge the user to act in a certain way, such as purchasing a product or service from the platform or renewing a service subscription.
- Forced action- It entails compelling a user to purchase any extra good or sign up for an unrelated service in order to purchase or subscribe to the product/service originally intended by the user.
- Subscription trap- It refers to the procedure of making it impossible to cancel a paid subscription by adding complex and lengthy process that includes comparable additional practices.
- Interface interference- It refers to a design feature that manipulates the user interface in such a way that highlights or obscure certain specified information in order to misdirect a user from performing a desired action.
- Bait and switch- It refers to the practice of promoting one outcome based on the user's behaviour while deceptively serving another.
- Drip pricing- It refers to a practice in which price elements are not revealed upfront or are revealed covertly within the user experience.
- Disguised advertisement- It refers to the practice of masquerading and concealing advertisements as user-generated content, new articles, or fraudulent ads.
- Nagging- It depicts a dark pattern in which users are bombarded with demands, information, options, or interruptions that are unrelated to the intended purchase of products or services and disturb the intended transaction.
What do the guidelines say?
The guidelines intend to forbid the online platforms from engaging in ‘unfair trade practices’ by incorporating dark patterns in their online interface, which manipulates consumer choice and violates ‘consumer rights’ as enshrined under Section 2(9) of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019.
According to Section 2(9) of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, consumer rights includes the right to be informed about the quality, quantity, potency, purity, standard and price of goods, products or services, as the case may be, so as to protect the consumer against unfair trade practices.
The guidelines state that no advertiser, seller or platform which goods or services in India shall engage in promoting any kind of dark pattern. Any person or platform, will be considered to be engaging in a dark pattern if it engages in any practice amongst the ten specified ones.
The draft document also clarifies that if a dark pattern is already being regulated by any other existing law or its associated rules and regulations, these guidelines should be considered as supplementary and not conflicting with those existing regulations.
Since these guidelines will be issued under section 18 (2) (l) of the Consumer Protection Act 2019, the Central Consumer Protection Authority has the power to investigate violations of consumer rights caused by leveraging any kind dark patterns. They can initiate these investigations on their own (suo motu) or in response to a received complaint.
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