India’s move to regulate dark patterns is a welcome one. Whether it will have a meaningful impact on the behavior of ecommerce firms is yet to be seen, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

I read the draft guidelines published by Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Government of India on the “Prevention and Regulation of Dark Patterns” and I was impressed with the simplicity and the clarity. There were even examples given, which I don’t remember seeing in regulations and laws. The guidelines list ten points that e-commerce companies are prohibited to use in their platforms:

  1. False urgency
  2. Basket sneaking
  3. Confirm shaming
  4. Forced action
  5. Subscription trap
  6. Interface interference
  7. Bait and Switch
  8. Drip pricing
  9. Disguised advertisement
  10. Nagging

While as users we are familiar with Nagging, Disguised advertisement, Subscription trap, false urgency, and basket sneaking, it was interesting to see inclusion of advanced methods of deception like:

  • Confirm shaming, example will be “I will stay unsecured”
  • Forced action, example will be forced upgrade for a higher rate to use a product or service
  • Interface interference, example will be a nonfunctional close button
  • Bait and switch, example will be to remove a cheap price at the checkout and insert a costlier alternative
  • Drip pricing, example will be charging more than the displayed amount

Dark Patterns

I remember the early days of the internet and tech companies. The founders and engineers who built these companies were driven by a desire to make the world a better place. But in recent years, as technology became mainstream and impacting every human being in the planet, we’ve seen a shift of technology companies placing their self-interest, growth, and greed for user data above their user interests. They lost sight of their purpose and Dark Patterns entered.

Dark patterns (refer Wikipedia) are deceptive user interface designs that exploit human psychology to trick people into making decisions they wouldn’t otherwise make. They’re used by technology companies to get us to sign up for subscriptions we don’t want, agree to terms and conditions we haven’t read, and share more personal data than we’re comfortable with. To be clear, dark patterns are not a new phenomenon. They have existed for centuries, but they have been weaponized and exponentially scaled by technology companies in recent years.

Today, dark patterns are present in every app and website we use. Most often, engineers and product managers are using them without knowing that they are harmful, and they are unethical. They have been taught that implementing dark patterns is the only way to build a successful app or service. The use of dark patterns is unethical and harmful to users. It’s also bad for innovation. When companies use dark patterns to trick people into using their products, it creates a disincentive for developers to create honest and user-friendly interfaces.

I’m optimistic that we can learn to pushback against dark patterns. But it’s going to take time and effort. Regulations can help speed up the process. Governments should regulate dark patterns for big tech companies, but they should be careful not to stifle innovation in the startup ecosystem (which they seem to be aware).

Today, the big tech and ecommerce companies are worth trillions of dollars. They have the resources to do the right thing without sacrificing their bottom line. The question is, will they? History shows that big businesses, like tobacco companies, telephone companies, oil companies, and banks, often need to be forced to do the right thing. I hope that India’s new regulations will be a wake-up call for big tech and that they will start to use their power for good.

Let’s work together to create a more ethical and user-friendly technologies.

#darkpatterns #bigtech #regulations #consumerprotection #ecommerce #dsa #dma

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