FTC, ICPEN, GPEN Announce Results of Review of Use of Dark Patterns Affecting Subscription Services, Privacy

The Federal Trade Commission and two international consumer protection networks announced the results of a review of selected websites and apps that showed a large percentage of the websites and mobile apps examined may use dark patterns, digital design techniques that may manipulate consumers into buying products or services or giving up their privacy. These techniques can steer consumers to take actions they would not otherwise have taken.

The International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network’s (ICPEN) annual review, which took place January 29-February 2, 2024, examined the use of possible dark patterns by 642 websites and mobile apps that offered subscription services from companies across the globe and in multiple languages. Officials from 27 authorities in 26 countries participated. Nearly 76% of the sites and apps examined as part of the review employed at least one possible dark pattern, and nearly 67% used multiple possible dark patterns. It was not reported whether these identified practices were used in an unlawful way or violated the laws of the affected countries.

Participants examined several types of dark patterns, using descriptions of the practices as set out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The potential dark patterns most often encountered during the review were sneaking practices, which involve hiding or delaying the disclosure of information that might affect a consumer’s purchase decision, and interface interference, techniques such as obscuring important information or preselecting options that frame information in a way that steers consumers toward making decisions more favorable for the business.

ICPEN coordinated its review with the Global Privacy Enforcement Network (GPEN), a network of more than 80 privacy enforcement authorities. GPEN’s review—in which the FTC also participated—focused on websites and apps using design patterns that may encourage individuals to provide more personal information than they intended. Like the ICPEN review, the 26 privacy authorities participating in the GPEN review of sites operating in various countries found that the majority of websites and apps examined used at least one potential dark pattern. While there were no findings as to whether any of these instances rose to the level of law violations, the collaboration underscores the ways dark pattern techniques may impact not just consumers’ wallets but also their privacy choices.

Today’s announcement coincides with the FTC officially assuming the 2024-2025 presidency of ICPEN, an international network of consumer protection authorities from more than 70 countries that protects consumers around the world by sharing information and encouraging global enforcement cooperation among consumer protection authorities.

The FTC has worked for many years to identify and crack down on businesses that deploy deceptive and unlawful dark patterns. In 2022, the FTC released a staff report, Bringing Dark Patterns to Light, which detailed a wide range of dark patterns.

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