With rapid advancements in user interfaces, dark patterns are the latest threat to consumer protection.
An extensive discussion paper released by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), the self-regulatory body of the advertising industry, has highlighted how UI/UX deployed by digital platforms could manipulate consumer choices and consumption patterns.
According to the paper, these manipulative tactics, or “dark patterns” come in many forms and are present across multiple platforms. Practices like drip pricing, trick questions, nagging, disguised ads, bait and switch, among others, are just some of the commonly found dark patterns on the internet. With online commerce growing rapidly, consumers’ vulnerability to such practices is increasing. In FY 2021-22, 29% of the advertisements processed by ASCI were disguised by influencers as regular content, which is also a part of dark patterns in advertising. Categories found to be major violators were cryptocurrency, personal care, fashion and e-commerce.
Taking note of the growing global concerns around such practices, ASCI formed a 12-member task force comprising stakeholders from different tech platforms, legal experts, civil society and domain experts. The task force examined key issues related to dark patterns to understand which of these practices potentially violate the ASCI code which inter-alia states: “Advertisements shall not be framed so as to abuse the trust of consumers or exploit their lack of experience or knowledge."
Not all dark patterns fall under the domain of advertising and hence may be out of ASCI’s remit, however, they could amount to unfair trade practices which compromise consumer interest. ASCI hopes that in the near future, such dark patterns will be addressed by the regulators as they see appropriate in the interest of consumer protection.
ASCI has outlined 4 key practices that it intends to address through expanding its code: namely Drip pricing, Bait and Switch, False Urgency and Disguised advertising. ASCI has invited comments from all stakeholders and the members of the public on this proposed expansion of the ASCI code. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org; the last date to receive these comments is 31st December 2022.
Manisha Kapoor, CEO and Secretary General, ASCI, said: “There is a thin line between dark patterns and legitimate targeting and persuasion tactics. Dark patterns cause consumer harm and with the ever-increasing presence of advertising on digital platforms, these are now under sharp scrutiny of ad-regulators around the world. Eventually dark patterns ruin consumer experience and increase abandonments, and make the consumer suspicious of the online space. By choosing fair practices that enhance both consumer and shareholder value, brands can develop sustainable ways of consumer engagement. ASCI continues its investment in technology to track and monitor digital advertising to help keep the online experience safe for consumers.”
The paper cites examples provided by UX experts of alternative practices that are fair to consumers and that can be adopted by brands. These alternatives can clean up the online space of malicious patterns and build consumer confidence in the digital world.