In today’s Finshots, we talk about why and how India is trying to curb dark patterns.

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The Story

Imagine you’re scrolling through an e-commerce website trying to buy some cool sneakers. You’re just window shopping because you want the Diwali bonus to hit your account first before you treat yourself. And when you see a really cool one that costs ₹10,000, you add it to your cart. You don’t have any intention to buy it just yet. But you do want to make a purchase eventually. So you just want to leave it there.

But then, you get a pop-up notification. There’s a countdown timer and it says, “Buy within 15 minutes and get a 10% discount.”

You freak out. You don’t know if you’ll get that juicy discount again if you wait for a month. And you’ll probably grit your teeth and hit buy.

Well, folks, this is what some would call a classic dark pattern. In this case, an idea used to generate “false urgency”!

It’s what websites often use to nudge you to do something when that something may not be in your best interest. And this term ‘dark pattern’ is fairly new in our lexicon. It was coined only in 2010 by user experience (UX) designer Harry Brignull when he realised that websites were intentionally confusing users for their benefit. In fact, some studies show that consumers are 2-4 times more likely to be influenced into buying stuff when a website dangles such baits.

And the folks in power in India have been keeping a watchful eye on this. They know these dark patterns are rampant. Heck, even the ASCI (Advertising Standards Council of India) has seen this playing out. They’re even calling out influencers who don’t disclose that some posts are paid partnerships. It’s a part of the dark pattern problem too. They say that 29% of ads they looked at in 2021-22  fell into this category. So that’s why a few days ago, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs came up with draft guidelines to put an end to these practices. They want to protect people from these shady nudges. And they’ve listed out 10 dark patterns in their draft.

Such as “Basket sneaking” — which is when you go to the checkout window and find that the platform has automatically added travel insurance along with your flight ticket. Or “Interface interference” —  when they show a small X to close a pop-up ad, but its placement is in such a way that you end up clicking the ad more often than not.

And all this can help companies make a truckload of money.

For instance, look at forgetfulness and digital subscriptions.

Think about all the free 30-day trials that websites offer. They won’t let you try it out without you punching in your payment details. That’s the entry point of a dark pattern you might not spot. Companies do tell you that they’ll charge your card only when your trial expires. But what if you totally forget about it? In many cases, even finding the ‘cancel’ button is hard. They’ll make you jump through hoops just to get there. Or even worse, not have the option to do that online. They force you to call their customer helpline and waste your time – the New York Times has become infamous for this. This tactic is called a “Roach Motel”. And when companies rake in the money with this dark pattern, revenues can jump anywhere between 14% to 200%.

Then there are companies that manipulate consumers into parting with their data.

And there can’t be a better example of this than Big Tech. In one of many cases against them globally, French privacy watchdog CNIL (Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés) fined Facebook and Google a total of €210 million in 2022 for making it hard to opt out of cookie tracking. If accepting it took just one click, refusing all cookies needed multiple steps. Now imagine the money these folks make by handing over data to advertisers.

So yeah, you can see why countries are trying to clamp down on this by issuing regulations or guidelines.

As of today, India is trying to put in place fresh guidelines. The UK has an “Online Rip-Off Tip-Off” campaign that encourages consumers to spot and report misleading selling tactics. And the US has been trying to pass the DETOUR (Deceptive Experience To Online Users Reduction) Act as well.

But here’s the thing. It’s not always going to be easy to implement. For instance, Renu Gupta, an advocate, pointed out something in The Hindu.

How will a regulator determine if a hotel or platform claiming, ‘only 2 rooms remaining – book now!’ is genuinely providing accurate data, or misleading users due to a lack of context?”.

As you can see, it's going to be tricky. And we’ll just have to see how the regulators deal with all of this in their bid to protect us.

Until then…

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