Centre tightens grip against ‘dark patterns’, issues guidelines

The Centre on Friday came out with a set of guidelines targeted at the prevention and regulation of dark patterns.

Dark patterns are defined as any practice or “deceptive design pattern” using user interface or user experience interactions on any platform that is designed to mislead or trick users to do something they originally did not intend or want to do. These practices look at subverting or impairing consumer autonomy, decision-making, or choice, amounting to misleading advertisements, unfair trade practices, or violations of consumer rights.

Specific patterns included the creation of “false urgency” to mislead a user into creating a sense of scarcity and then luring them into a purchase; “basket sneaking,” where the inclusion of additional items such that the total amount payable by the user is more than the amount payable for the product, among others.

“Any person, including any platform, shall be considered to be engaging in a dark pattern practice if it engages in any (of these) practice(s),” the notification said.

According to the notification, dark patterns will also include showing false popularity of a product or service to manipulate user decisions and also stating that quantities of a particular product or service are more limited than they actually are.

For instance, a travel aggregator is trying to push the sale of hotel rooms as “Only 2 rooms left! 30 others are looking at this right now” would constitute a dark pattern.

Similarly, creating time-bound pressure to make a purchase, such as describing a sale as an ‘exclusive’ sale for a limited time only for a select group of users, is under question.

The guidelines also explain the automatic addition of paid ancillary services with a pre-ticked box or otherwise to the cart when a consumer is purchasing a product or service; a user purchases a single salon service, but while checking out, a subscription to the salon service is automatically added; automatically adding travel insurance while a user purchases a flight ticket are not considered basket sneaking.

The guidelines also mention “confirm shaming,” a practice where a phrase, video, audio, or any other means is used to create a sense of fear, shame, ridicule, or guilt in the mind of the user so as to nudge the user to act in a certain way that results in the user’s purchasing being changed. This is also considered to be a dark pattern.

For instance, a platform for booking flight tickets using the phrase “I will stay unsecured” when a user does not include insurance in their cart and a platform that adds a charity to the basket without the user’s consent and uses a phrase such as “Charity is for the rich, I don’t care” when a user prefers to opt out of contributing towards charity are now brought under the guidelines.

Forced action

The guidelines also talk about “forced action,” where users end up buying additional goods, subscribing to or signing up for an unrelated service, or sharing personal information in order to buy or subscribe to the product or service originally intended by the user.

Forcing a user to share details of his contacts or social networks in order to access products or services purchased or intended to be purchased by the user will also be considered a dark pattern.

Guidelines also categorise a dark pattern as one that prohibits a user from continuing with the use of a product or service for the consideration originally paid and contracted for, unless they upgrade for a higher rate or fee; forcing a user to subscribe to a newsletter in order to purchase a product; forcing a user to download an unintended or unrelated separate app to access a service originally advertised on another app.

Subscription trap

The guidelines define a “subscription trap,” whereby making cancellation of a paid subscription impossible or a complex and lengthy process; hiding the cancellation option for a subscription; or forcing a user to provide payment details or authorization for auto debits for availing of a free subscription.

Other dark pattern items mentioned include “drip pricing,” where elements of prices are not revealed upfront or are revealed surreptitiously within the user experience, or when a user is prevented from availing of a service that is already paid for unless something additional is purchased.

Disguised advertisement has also been defined as the practice of posing or masking advertisements as other types of content, such as user-generated content, new articles or false advertisements, which are designed to blend in with the rest of an interface in order to trick customers into clicking on them.

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