The European Commission has been looking at retail websites to see if they’re misleading consumers with “dark patterns”. Spoiler: Yes, they are.
The Commission, along with the national consumer protection authorities of 23 EU member states, plus Norway and Iceland, have released the results of their screening of online shops. In a sweep of 399 sites the investigation discovered that 148 of them contained at least one of the three dark patterns they were checked for.
Dark patterns, also known as deceptive design patterns, occur when a user interface has been carefully crafted to nudge or trick users into doing things they didn’t set out to do.
Dark patterns are not subliminal messagaging, visual or auditory stimuli that the conscious mind cannot perceive, although advertisers have been accused of using that as well.
The investigation focused on three manipulative practices that can push consumers into making choices that may not be in their best interests:
- Fake countdown timers, which create a sense of false urgency
- Interfaces designed to lead consumers to certain purchases, subscriptions or other choices.
- Hidden information.
Frankly, the numbers are surprising, if not disappointing. The investigation found that “nearly 40% of the online shopping websites rely on manipulative practices to exploit consumers’ vulnerabilities or trick them.”
The sweep found 42 websites that used fake countdown timers with deadlines for purchasing specific products. 54 websites directed consumers towards certain choices–from subscriptions to more expensive products or delivery options–either through their visual design or choice of language.
At least 70 websites hid important information or made it less visible for consumers. For example, this included information related to delivery costs, the composition of products, or on the availability of a cheaper option.
23 websites hid information with the aim of manipulating consumers into entering into a subscription.
The offending vendors will be contacted by their national authorities and ordered to rectify their websites. If necessary, further action will be taken. The Commissioner for Justice has called on all national authorities to make use of their enforcement capacities to take relevant action and fight these practices.
Tthe Commission is gathering feedback to analyze whether additional action is needed to ensure an equal level of fairness online and offline. The evaluation will look at three pieces of European Union consumer protection legislation to determine whether they ensure a high enough level of protection in the digital environment.
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