Regulators are looking for ‘dark patterns’ in technology that harm consumers

For years, tech businesses, subscription apps, and e-commerce sites have utilized subtle methods to persuade individuals to make decisions or purchases they would not have made otherwise. The approaches have even been given a name: dark patterns.  A crackdown could be on the way now.

Congressmen, consumer protection organizations, nonprofit watchdog groups, and research scientists have all announced plans to increase their scrutiny of dark structures this year, preparing the ground for potential legal proceedings and promising more clarity and fairness in how people use the web. Anyone who has used a web browser or a smartphone is likely familiar with the tactics in inquiry. Money is often on the line, and as more online services adopt subscription-based structures, the financial implications have been mounting. Last year, President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign was suspected of duping people into making repeating payments. Heavy-handed design methods may have intangible consequences, such as privacy, time, or sanity, in other circumstances.

The Federal Trade Commission issued a warning last month that it will be looking into certain trends that “trick or trap” customers into subscribing to services. In the past, the FTC and state authorities have filed numerous lawsuits against subscription services and other firms, but the FTC claims that enforcement has not gone much further.

Many incidents of suspected dark patterns are already being investigated by other parties, such as class-action lawsuits in which the term “dark patterns” has lately surfaced in cases of contested refunds or recurring subscriptions.

The FTC’s announcement served as a warning shot to businesses that may be involved in similar behavior right now. The committee has been looking into the matter for months, and its new chair, Lina Khan, was nominated by President Joe Biden and is a vocal critic of internet firms.