A product added at the end of the order, a highlighted "accept" button, a shaming message when you refuse a discount, a subscription in three clicks but an unsubscription impossible... Welcome to the "dark patterns" trap! Many websites, applications, social networks or search engines use graphic elements (color, size of buttons...) or technical processes to influence your behavior and encourage you to click, buy, subscribe or provide personal data. How to spot these manipulative techniques? How to avoid falling into the trap? If they are not illegal, how are they regulated in Europe? Explanations in this article.
- An option, insurance or service for a small amount is added at the end of your online order. Not to restart the ordering process all over again, you end up accepting this additional fee.
- The site reminds you that if you pay only a few extra euros, you will get free delivery.
- Well placed messages create a sense of urgency, giving you the impression that you are missing out on a good deal or a very rare product/service.
Examples: "Only 3 hotel rooms in this category are available at this price", "Free cancellation, nothing to pay now", "47 other people are looking at this item", "Only 3 items left in stock"...
- When you place an order, your shopping cart already contains itemsthat you need to remove.
- As you search for a specific product or service, the site shows you other options that might interest you or offers and discounts that allow you to buy more for the same amount of money.
- The website posts customer reviews or videos from influencers that praise the product. It uses social proof via testimonials to get you to buy specific items.
- An important news is displayed on your screen, you click on it but it is actually an advertisement for a product.
Example of a clickable message: "Your order has arrived!"
- The website displays a guilt-inducing message if you refuse a product, discount or service, or want to cancel the purchase. This dark patterns technique is called "confirmshaming." Ask yourself the right questions before clicking!
Examples: "no thanks, I hate saving money", "no thanks, I hate getting good deals, I'd rather pay full price"
- A pop-up window opens and promises you a free trial for a product but you have to give your credit card details. This is most likely a hidden subscription with a monthly or annual fee that will be charged to your account.
- The highlighted price is a price with a "bonus," "benefit" or “VIP” option. If you validate this price, you subscribe to the option which often takes the form of a monthly subscription.
- The site offers you regular deliveries of the same (type of) product in order to save money, supposedly. Beware of overconsumption! Beware of the hidden subscription!
Tips on how not to fall into the trap of dark patterns
- Check if the purchase is still worthwhile despite the additional costs. Compare prices and offers on other sites.
- Don't be intimidated by catchy messages like "only 3 items left in stock" or "last places available".
- Take the time to check if the offer and the proposed options really correspond to your needs. Ask yourself the right questions!
- Before confirming the purchase,check your shopping cart, delete unwanted items/options/services.
- Always read the check boxes and options carefully.
- Don't forget that you may have a cooling off right and therefore 14 days to change your mind.
- If French law applies, you are protected in case of automatic renewal of your subscription. The Châtel law obliges professionals to inform their customers in writing, between three months and one month before the end of the subscription or contract with tacit renewal, of their possibility not to renew it.
- A few clicks to subscribe, but hundreds to unsubscribe! Some sites "hide" the cancellation conditions in their general subscription conditions. Some applications require the user to log in to the PC version of their customer account to access the unsubscribe terms and conditions.
Good to know: In Germany, as of July 2022, sites must make a "cancellation button" available to consumers. In France, by 1 June 2023, the websites of telephone operators, newspapers, insurance companies, transport companies, electricity suppliers and even dating sites in France will have to offer a free feature to make it easier to cancel a subscription.
You receive notifications of updates to your application. They indicate that the update is "vital", "crucial" or "necessary". But in fact, you cannot refuse it.
Example: WhatsApp update. Read the summary of the CPC network's action with the European Commission.
Some websites use weak wording, negative phrases or double negatives to trick you into doing the opposite of what you really wanted.
Tip: Read the options carefully.
Be careful if the website or social network:
- promises you a better service if you enable geolocation;
- has set up your account so that your data and your publications are accessible to everyone;
- highlights the "accept all" button for cookies;
- makes a pop-up window appear in which you have to enter your e-mail address andhighlights the "send" button to receive for example a discount or other interesting information (e.g. Covid-19 sanitary measures in the country you are going to travel to).
All these techniques have only one goal: to get personal data from you! These data have a real value because they can be sold and allow targeted marketing (advertising targeted according to the behavior, habits or location of Internet users). Read our article "How to protect your personal data?"
Currently, there is no definition or European legislation governing specifically dark patterns. These manipulative techniques fall under the scope of several European directives or regulations relating to competition law, consumer law, data protection or artificial intelligence.
Example: The Consumer Rights Directive prohibits pre-ticked boxes.
Some techniques can be considered as unfair commercial practices.
Examples: advertising a good or service as "free" when you have to pay for it, attracting consumers with very interesting prices but the products are unavailable.
The European Commission wants to go further and regulate practices in the digital sector:
- item added to the new consumer agenda.
- the fight against manipulative sites is a priority in the 2020-2025 action agenda.
- The Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA) provide for limits on the collection of personal data, the use of behavioural advertising techniques and dark patterns by online platforms and intermediary services.
- Publication of a "Behavioral study on unfair commercial practices in the digital environment" on May 16, 2022 in which it proposes, among other things, to prohibit the most harmful practices for consumers, to impose a duty on professionals to design, fair or neutral design and to develop guidelines and practical examples for companies and designers.
In the meantime, the supervisory authorities of the Regulation on the protection of personal data (GDPR) can sanction traders if the techniques they use on their websites undermine the protection of personal data.
Some authorities in Europe also issue recommendations to protect consumers from deception.
- the Dutch authority's guidelines for web designers and developers,
- the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) market study,
- the collaboration between the DGCCRF and the Direction Interministérielle de la Transformation Publique (DITP) to better protect consumers against online fraud by including behavioral sciences.
Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Innovation Council and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises Executive Agency (EISMEA). Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.