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FTC pledges to fight dark patterns that trick users on sites and apps

The FTC said companies could face legal action if they keep up with dark patterns.


Andrew Wyrich


Posted on Oct 29, 2021   Updated on Oct 29, 2021, 12:31 pm CDT

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is warning companies that it is ramping up its enforcement of dark patterns.

Dark patterns are deceptive tactics intended to trick or obfuscate users attempting to unsubscribe or opt-out of things online. The FTC said in a blog post on Thursday that they have received a “rising number of complaints about the financial harms” caused by dark patterns.

In a policy statement, the FTC said companies will face legal action unless their sign-up processes are clear about their products and services and how much customers will be charged for them; they get a consumer’s express consent before charging them for a product or service; or they provide an easy way for consumers to cancel.

“Today’s enforcement policy statement makes clear that tricking consumers into signing up for subscription programs or trapping them when they try to cancel is against the law,” Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. “Firms that deploy dark patterns and other dirty tricks should take notice.”

This isn’t the first time the agency has set its sights on dark patterns.

Earlier this year, the commission held a workshop about dark patterns. The workshop focused on how they differed from other sales tactics, how they affected consumer behavior, if some consumer groups were impacted more or unfairly targeted by them, and what laws or rules regulate them, among other things.

In September 2020, the FTC also filed a complaint against Age of Learning Inc., the company behind online learning tool ABCmouse, for allegedly using dark patterns to make it harder for consumers to cancel their memberships, leading them to get unwanted charges. Age of Learning agreed to pay $10 million to settle the charges, and the money was paid out to victims.

On a state level, California announced in March that it was banning specific dark patterns on apps and websites. The regulations prohibited businesses from using methods that are “designed with the purpose or has the substantial effect of subverting or impairing a consumer’s choice to opt-out.”

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*First Published: Oct 29, 2021, 10:44 am CDT