New rules on dark patterns: how they may change your online shopping experience

E-commerce platforms will no longer be able to add charity amounts to users’ billings, or use messages that could force a user into making an unrequired purchase. (Mint)
E-commerce platforms will no longer be able to add charity amounts to users’ billings, or use messages that could force a user into making an unrequired purchase. (Mint)

Summary

  • The CCPA has notified guidelines to stop online firms from force-selling, pushing unsolicited subscriptions and showing misleading ads

The Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) has notified guidelines on dark patterns to stop online firms from force-selling, pushing unsolicited subscriptions and showing misleading ads. Mint explains how these guidelines may change online shopping.

What do the guidelines say?

The CCPA dark patterns guidelines prohibit 13 activities by online shopping platforms. These are: false urgencies, adding unrequired items to carts, ‘confirm shaming’, forced actions, subscription traps, interface interferences, bait and switch, drip pricing, disguised ads, nagging, trick questions, ‘SaaS billing’ and malware. These guidelines are to stop firms from exploiting customers with interface design that is unclear, in order to get them to pay for a service that they don’t need. The guidelines will be enforced alongside existing consumer protection laws that are already applicable to businesses.

What happens if firms fail to comply?

In June, the consumer affairs ministry said firms that are failing to comply with the guidelines will attract scrutiny. Regulations have been introduced to make it easier for consumers to apply for grievance redressal—including if the platforms forced buyers to pay for anything that they did not want. A national consumer helpline has also been set up to help users report such anomalies, if they are affected by any incident on e-commerce platforms. Going forward, user grievances against e-commerce platforms will be raised in court, unless the dispute is settled between a user and the platform.

Do other nations also enforce similar rules?

The EU Digital Services Act penalizes platforms for promoting dark patterns. In the US, specific state laws curb dark patterns, with regulations in the same vein as Europe and now India. Our regulations are in line with the EU’s approach towards this subject, and are framed to prevent companies from exploiting consumers in the guise of offers and discounts.

How have e-commerce firms reacted?

Industry bodies and entities have largely remained silent, but have spoken up against over-regulating the e-commerce industry. In October, the Asia Internet Coalition, which counts Amazon, Google and Meta as members, said introducing rules and guidelines on dark patterns could “stagnate growth". It added that new regulations may hurt the ease of doing business in India, and lead to “regulatory overlap"—arguing that consumer protection can be implemented through existing regulations.

Will our shopping experience change?

That depends on how the new guidelines are implemented. If enforced strictly, platforms may no longer be able to show options such as timed offers, or create interfaces that simulate a false impression of demand. Platforms will also no longer be able to add charity amounts to users’ billings, or use messages that could force a user into making an unrequired purchase. Much of the ‘extra-value revenue’ e-commerce platforms generate is likely to end. But consumers may like the overhaul of online shopping interfaces.

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