‘Dark patterns’ on the Internet: how companies deceive their users

The story so far: Some Internet-based companies have been tricking users into agreeing to certain terms or clicking on some links. Unsuspecting users would not have accepted such terms or clicked on urls (uniform resource locator) but for the deceptive tactics deployed by tech companies. Such opt-ins and clicks are flooding users’ inboxes with promotional emails they never wanted, making it difficult to unsubscribe or request removal. These are examples of “dark patterns”, also known as “deceptive patterns”.

What are dark patterns?

These patterns are unethical user interface designs that deliberately hinder your Internet experience or even exploit you. In turn, they benefit the company or platform that uses the designs.

By using dark patterns, digital platforms take away the user’s right to obtain complete information about the services they are using and control over their browsing experience.

The term is attributed to UI/UX (user interface/user experience) researcher and designer Harry Brignull, who has been working to catalog such patterns and the companies that use 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 degrade the user experience in their favor.

Amazon has come under fire in the EU for its confusing multi-step Amazon Prime subscription cancellation process. After reaching out to consumer regulators, Amazon eased its cancellation process for online customers in European countries this year.

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

As Meta-owned Instagram shifts to video-based content to compete against TikTok, users have complained that they are being shown suggested posts they don’t want to see and that they can’t permanently set preferences.

Another dark pattern in the app is the sponsored video ads that are spread between the reels and stories that users originally chose to watch, tricking them for several seconds before they can see the small “sponsored” tag.

Google-owned YouTube asks users to sign up for YouTube Premium with pop-ups, which hide the last few seconds of a video with thumbnails of other videos, a way to disrupt what should be a seamless user experience.

What can users miss because of dark patterns?

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

In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission [FTC] he took note of the dark patterns and the risks they pose. In a report published in September this year, the regulatory body listed more than 30 dark patterns, many of which are considered standard practices on social media platforms and e-commerce sites.

These include “unsubstantiated” countdowns for online offers, fine print terms that add to costs, making cancel buttons hard to see or click, making ads look like news or celebrity endorsements, playing videos, forcing users to create accounts to complete a transaction, silently charging credit cards after free trials end, and using muted colors to hide information users should know.

In one instance, the FTC’s report described 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 holder downloaded the app and the kids started playing the game, unbeknownst to the account holder, the kids could rack up various charges, from $0.99 to $99.99 each, by tapping buttons, without the participation of the account holder. These purchases were disguised as a game,” the statement said.

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

However, dark and deceptive patterns are not limited to laptops and smartphones. The FTC report warned that as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) platforms and devices grow in use, dark patterns are likely to follow users into these new channels as well.

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


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