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Most digital businesses now use ‘dark patterns’ to manipulate consumers, FTC warns

Three-quarters of websites employ deceptive tactics such as "sneaking" or "interface interference" to force purchases or trick people into handing over data

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski / Unsplash

The Federal Trade Commission has warned that three-quarters of online businesses now use "dark patterns" to manipulate consumers into buying products or handing over personal data.

Dark patterns are design techniques that “can steer consumers to take actions they would not otherwise have taken.” Just think about pressing “consent all” on a media site's cookie popup. Did you really want to do that, or could you not be bothered rejecting every advertiser’s “legitimate interest” individually?

The International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN), of which the FTC holds the 2024-25 presidency, examined the use of dark patterns across 642 websites and apps offering subscription services.

It found that “nearly 76% of the sites and apps examined as part of the review employed at least one possible dark pattern, and nearly 67% used multiple possible dark patterns.”

The FTC said it was “not reported whether these identified practices were used in an unlawful way or violated the laws of the affected countries.”

The most common patterns were “sneaking practices”, involving the hiding or delaying disclosure of info that might affect a purchase decision, along with “interface interference”, where information is obscured or options preselected to steer customers to the organisation’s benefit.

The FTC has previously taken action against companies employing dark patterns, for example, to frustrate customers’ efforts to cancel subscriptions. In 2022, it issued an enforcement policy statement that warned companies against deploying illegal practices that trick or trap consumers into subscription services.

Shining a light on dark patterns

In the UK, the ICO and Competition and Markets Authority set a stake in the ground last year over harmful online design that encourages people to hand over personal information.

Stephen Almond, Executive Director of Regulatory Risk at the ICO, said: “Some of these design practices are so subtle and have gone on for so long, you wouldn’t even realise you’re handing over your personal information until it’s too late – and it’s possible these techniques are embedded into thousands of websites across the UK.

“These website design tricks can have real and negative impacts on consumers’ lives. For example, if someone is recovering from a gambling problem, being steered to ‘accept all’ cookies can mean being continually bombarded with betting adverts, which could be incredibly harmful."

Marcus Bokkerink, CMA chair, recently called out dark patterns at the CMA's 10 year anniversary event, saying: “We’ve also seen a shift toward tackling ever more sophisticated, often technology-enabled, methods used by unscrupulous actors to mislead or exploit when we buy goods and services online.”

These include fake reviews, pressure sales, and drip pricing. At least two of these being standard fare for an array of “legitimate” businesses.

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