Recommendations for Updating the FTC’s Disclosure Guidelines to Combat Dark Patterns

Last week, CITP’s Tech Policy Clinic, along with Dr. Jennifer King, brought leading interdisciplinary academic researchers together to provide recommendations to the Federal Trade Commission on how it should update the 2013 version of its online digital advertising guidelines (the “Disclosure Guidelines”). This post summarizes the comment’s main takeaways.   

We focus on how the FTC should address the growing problem of “dark patterns,” also known as “manipulative designs.” Dark patterns are user interface techniques that benefit an online service by leading consumers into making decisions they might not otherwise make. Some dark patterns deceive consumers, while others exploit cognitive biases or shortcuts to manipulate or coerce them into choices that are not in their best interests. Dark patterns have been an important focus of research at CITP, as noted in two widely cited papers, “Measurement Methods and Dark Patterns at Scale: Findings from a Crawl of 11K Shopping Websites,” and “What Makes a Dark Pattern… Dark?: Design Attributes, Normative Considerations.”

As documented in several research studies, consumers may encounter dark patterns in many online contexts, such as when making choices to consent to the disclosure of personal information or to cookies, when interacting with services and applications like games or content feeds that seek to capture and extend consumer attention and time spent, and in e-commerce, including at multiple points along a purchasing journey. Dark patterns may start with the advertising of a product or service, and can be present across the whole customer path, including sign-up, purchase, and cancellation. 

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