Thought you unsubscribed? Digital tactics that deceive consumers are often designed to be sneaky.
Aug 29, 2022

Thought you unsubscribed? Digital tactics that deceive consumers are often designed to be sneaky.

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They’re known as "dark patterns," a term coined by user-experience specialist Harry Brignull. And they can rack up profits for the companies behind them.

This episode originally aired on “Marketplace” on Aug. 10, 2022.

Online shopping can be full of pop-ups and distractions, as well as some traps and misdirection.

Like signing up for a free trial membership to some app or website. While you might’ve forgotten to keep taking those daily French lessons you signed up for, the company hasn’t forgotten you or your credit card number.

If you can find the Unsubscribe or Cancel button, even that tool might not release you completely.

And that’s intentional.

Harry Brignull is a user-experience specialist based in the United Kingdom. He calls these design strategies “dark patterns,” and he’s been documenting them for over a decade. The following is an edited transcript of his conversation with Kimberly Adams.

Harry Brignull: For example, you might be buying a ticket with a low-cost airline and you find out somehow you’ve ended up paying for stuff you didn’t ask for, like premium seats or travel insurance or whatever. And in that sort of scenario, they’ve actually sneaked something into your shopping cart when you weren’t looking, and you end up paying for it. And afterwards, you might think, “Oh well, it was only $10 or $15 for a ticket purchase that might have been 10 times that price. Maybe I should just leave it.” And if that’s happening to millions of customers every week, that’s a lot of profit that can be made through those sorts of tricks.

Kimberly Adams: What kind of regulations are there around these types of strategies?

Brignull: So what’s interesting is when I started out with this stuff, it wasn’t a very regulated area. And my campaigning generally appealed to designers and people who worked in the industry. And in the last, sort of, four or five years, it’s suddenly been of a lot more interest to legal scholars and regulators and lawmakers. So the topic has kind of exploded, and suddenly, we’ve got these new regulations coming in. In California, you’ve got the [California Privacy Rights Act] and in Colorado, the [Colorado Privacy Act]. Those are both laws about privacy, and they aim to stop companies from tricking you into giving them permission to do stuff with your personal data, like tracking you and then selling the information to third parties. So both of those laws have definitions of dark patterns in them, and they forbid certain types of dark patterns, which is a really good thing.

In Europe, we’ve got something called the Digital Services Act incoming. It applies to a really wide range of online businesses. So it’s not specifically about privacy, but lots of different kinds of things that businesses do. And it forbids some kinds of dark patterns, which is really great. But the law hasn’t yet arrived. The wording has been agreed, but it hasn’t been kind of launched yet. So we don’t know quite how effective it will be, whether or not the wording’s done right, whether or not they’ll be able to use it well in practice.

Adams: So where do you see the industry moving in regards to using these strategies and these dark patterns? And how do you think consumers are going to be responding to them or just dealing with them?

Brignull: Well, I think there’s gonna be a bit more regulation. And there’s gonna be some more laws, and there’ll probably be some good ones written and some bad ones written, and I think we’ll learn, you know, globally, different countries are going to do different things. And I think industry will, obviously, when the laws change and they know that they’re up for really big fines or big problems, they’re going to pay attention. If there’s one language that businesses speak, it’s the language of money. And I think that will be very good for consumers who will then have a safer World Wide Web to use.

Brignull’s website includes more than 400 examples of various dark patterns in his hall of shame. Think Google, Amazon and Reddit, for starters.

The site offers fun nicknames to identify these tricks. Like Privacy Zuckering, which is when you’re tricked into publicly sharing more information about yourself than you really intended to. It’s named after a certain Facebook CEO whose name starts with Z. There’s also a trick called the Roach Motel, where you can easily become a member or a subscriber, but you can’t escape. Personally, I think “Hotel California” is a better fit.

By the way, that Digital Services Act is still making its way through the official European Union legislative process. And while some aspects of the law won’t go into effect until 2024, certain big companies will have new rules to follow within months.

So maybe soon, some websites will be a little less sneaky.

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The team

Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer