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The Nexus of Dark Pattern And Big Tech

In a way, it is using manipulation to dilute an informed decision-making process of the user

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The government of India has recognized the impact of ‘dark patterns’ in internet usage. They have decided to frame guidelines to regulate the same. The Adversitising Standard Council of India (ASCI) have planned to add dark patterns in its Online Advert Code.

What are dark patterns?

The pattern was first coined by UI/UX user Harry Brignull. They are patterns that interfere with the consumer experience of using the internet. It makes the experience harder for the user, and in turn, benefits the company deploying these designs. For example, if we are browsing a commerce platform, the prompts will include ‘buy in the next one hour and get free delivery’, and ‘order in the next 15 minutes and you will get a discount’. In a way, it is using manipulation to dilute an informed decision-making process of the user. They also curb the browsing experience of the user.

What’s the issue?

There is a common criticism that big tech firms like Amazon, Skype, Microsoft, Netflix etc downgrade the user experience to their own advantage. In fact, Amazon has come under fire in the European Union for its confusing Amazon Prime subscription process. Some of us in fact take auto-renew subscriptions and forget about it, and the notifications of the companies are not as glaring as other advertisements on our phones. In a way, they are presenting baseless countdowns to the user.

The problem is this kind of prompts not just make internet usage unpalatable, it also makes the users vulnerable to financial and data exploitation by big tech firms. In a way, they are presenting obstacles to users, by nudging them to spend money and share information at portals they would not want to. The US Federal Trade Commission has produced a list of 30 dark patterns, many of which we have already observed. These platforms urge users to create accounts and share credit card detail by virtue of which they are charged as soon as the cancelation buttons are difficult to spot, and colours are often used to further hide them. This also includes terms and conditions in fine print, making it hard for the user to spot. This scenario creates a power imbalance between consumers and companies. Also, children can become easy targets and sign up for undesirable and avoidable data and money theft.

Another common form of dark pattern is positing fake reviews for online consumer review. The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), the national standards body of India published Indian Standard IS 19000:2022 ‘Online Consumer Reviews- Principles and Requirements for their Collection, Moderation, and Publication’, stressing the importance of publishing genuine reviews. While some amount of work is done, we are still a long way ahead before we can make the consumer immune from dark patterns.