Explained |: What are “dark patterns” on the Internet?

The story so far. Some Internet companies trick users into agreeing to certain terms or clicking on multiple links. Undoubtedly, users would not have accepted such terms or clicked on URLs (uniform resource locators) but for the deceptive tactics used by tech companies. Such opt-ins and clicks flood users’ inboxes with promotional emails they never wanted, making it difficult to unsubscribe or request deletion. These are examples of “dark patterns”, also known as “deceptive patterns”.

What are dark patterns?

Such patterns are unethical interface designs that intentionally make your Internet experience difficult or even exploit you. In turn, these benefit the company or platform implementing the design.

By using dark patterns, digital platforms deprive users of full information about the services they use and reduce their control over the browsing experience.

The term is attributed to UI/UX (user interface/user experience) researcher and designer Harry Brignoll, who has been working on cataloging such patterns and the companies using them since around 2010.

How do companies use dark patterns?

Social media companies and big tech companies like Apple, Amazon, Skype, Facebook, LinkedIn, Microsoft, and Google use dark or deceptive patterns to skew the user experience to their advantage. for:

Amazon has come under fire in the EU for its confusing, multi-step Amazon Prime subscription cancellation process. After a run-in with consumer regulators, Amazon has this year simplified its cancellation process for online customers in European countries.

On social media, LinkedIn users often receive unsolicited, sponsored messages from influencers. Disabling this option is a complex multi-step process that requires users to be familiar with platform controls.

Dark Patterns on LinkedIn | Photo credit: LinkedIn

As Meta-owned Instagram moves toward video-based content to compete against TikTok, users have complained that they were being shown suggested posts they didn’t want to see and that they couldn’t permanently set preferences.

Another dark app pattern is sponsored video ads that are interspersed between the strips and stories that users originally decided to watch, tricking them for a few seconds before they can see the little “sponsored” tag.

Dark Patterns Instagram Ads | Photo credit: Instagram

Google-owned YouTube forces users to sign up for YouTube Premium with pop-ups, obscuring the last few seconds of a video with thumbnails of other videos, disrupting what should be an otherwise smooth user experience.

Dark Patterns on YouTube | Photo credit: YouTube

What are users missing out on due to dark patterns?

Dark patterns compromise Internet users’ experience and make them more vulnerable to financial and data exploitation by Big Tech companies. Dark patterns confuse users, create obstacles online, make simple tasks time-consuming, force users to sign up for unwanted services/products, and force them to pay more money or share more personal information than they intended.

In the US, the Federal Trade Commission [FTC] focused on dark patterns and the risks they pose. In a report published in September this year, the regulator listed more than 30 dark patterns, many of which are considered standard practice on social media platforms and e-commerce sites.

These include “unreasonable” countdowns for online transactions, font terms that increase costs, cancel buttons that are difficult to see or click, advertising as news reports or celebrity endorsements, auto-play videos, forcing users to create accounts, completing a transaction after free trials end. charge credit cards silently and using dark colors to hide information users need to know.

In one case, an FTC report outlined its legal action against Amazon in 2014 over a supposedly “free” children’s app that tricked its young users into making in-app purchases that their parents had to pay for.

“Once the account owner downloaded the app and the kids started playing the game without the account owner’s knowledge, the kids could collect multiple charges, from $0.99 to $99.99 each, by clicking buttons without the account owner’s involvement. These purchases were disguised as a game,” the message reads.

The case was settled after Amazon agreed to pay back more than $70 million.

However, the dark and insidious patterns don’t just stop at laptops and smartphones. The FTC report warned that as the use of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) platforms and devices increases, dark patterns are likely to follow users into these new channels.

Internet users who are able to identify and recognize dark patterns in their daily lives can choose more suitable platforms that respect their right to choose and their privacy.

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