User interfaces are often designed using deceptive or dark patterns to trick consumers into unplanned actions such as buying extra products or signing up for newsletters.
To mark World Consumer Rights Day (15 March), the European Consumer Centre Ireland (ECCI) has warned of the dangers of online shopping, which it says, “is sometimes riddled with unethical practices that lead consumers to inadvertent overconsumption, overindebtedness and losing out on fair pricing and fair terms”.
In a blog post, the ECCI listed the most common consumer rights breaches online as “unfair commercial practices, unfair pricing and unfair contract terms”.
It highlighted “dark patterns” as one of the most prominent recent issues.
Harry Brignull defines ‘dark or deceptive patterns’ as “tricks used in websites and apps that make you do things that you didn’t mean to, like buying or signing up for something.”
Dark patterns include misdirection, trick questions, hidden advertising, sneaking items into your basket, and premium models that are easy to opt in to but hard to opt out of.
According to Brignull, dark patterns work because “when you use websites and apps, you don’t read every word on every page – you skim read and make assumptions. If a company wants to trick you into doing something, they can take advantage of this by making a page look like it is saying one thing when it is in fact saying another.”
A 2022 European Commission report states that a key challenge with these deceptive tactics is that they “often operate in a blurred area between legitimate attempts at persuasion and illegitimate manipulation techniques”.
The commission report reveals that “dark patterns are prevalent and increasingly used by traders of all sizes, not only large platforms.”
Research for the report showed that “97pc of the most popular websites and apps used by EU consumers deployed at least one dark pattern.”
The latest Eurostat figures show that Irish internet users were the third biggest online shoppers in Europe with 89pc buying or ordering goods or services online, behind only the Netherlands (92pc) and Denmark (90pc).
In light of Irish consumers’ reliance on internet shopping, the ECCI urges people not to “lose sight of your European consumer rights when shopping online”.
The European Consumer Organisation argues that EU law should be updated to tackle these “unfair practices” online to ensure that “consumers are not harmed by misleading user interfaces and data personalisation techniques.”
Prof Owen Conlan, a research lead at the Adapt digital research centre, spoke about dark patterns on a recent For Tech’s Sake podcast episode. Conlan’s research focuses on empowering users in understanding and interacting with complex information and media.
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