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FTC Reviewing How Dark Patterns May Affect Consumers

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FTC Reviewing How Dark Patterns May Affect Consumers

The United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced the agenda for a Workshop on Dark Patterns. The outcome of this workshop could indicate how far the US government will go to regulate tech companies on privacy and online purchases. Research to be discussed at the workshop advocates for more laws to stop consumer manipulation.

This workshop is a fact-finding step in a multi-step process for understanding how business may be harming consumers and to discuss ways to mitigate that harm. Potential solutions to be discussed range from building awareness to proposing new laws.

What comes from this meeting could give an idea of potential future disruptions in how consumers make purchases online.

Dark Patterns

Dark Patterns is a user interface design practice that purposely tries to nudge users into taking a desired action that isn’t always in their best interest.

That can mean being nudged into buying things they don’t need to abusing a cognitive bias by coaxing a user to give away long-term control over their privacy in exchange for a short-term gain.

Research Paper to Be Discussed at FTC Workshop

The research paper to be discussed at the workshop gives an idea of where the FTC may be leaning.

Published in March 2021 the paper is titled, Shining a Light on Dark Patterns. Researchers created a scientific study with a control group to identify if dark patterns can in fact manipulate users.

They discovered that what they called mild dark patterns were able to manipulate users twice as much as the control group and that more aggressive dark patterns were able to manipulate users four times as much.

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They noted that aggressive dark patterns had the tendency to create a backlash among consumers but that mild dark patterns did not.

Researchers Make a Case for Legal Intervention

The researchers concluded that there was substantial evidence for supporting laws against mild dark patterns.

According to the abstract summary published by the researchers:

“First, whereas aggressive dark patterns generated a powerful backlash among consumers, mild dark patterns did not – suggesting that firms employing them generate substantial profits.

Second, less educated subjects were significantly more susceptible to mild dark patterns than their well-educated counterparts.

Both findings suggest that there is a particularly powerful case for legal interventions to curtail the use of mild dark patterns.”

Topics Under Discussion

The agenda consists of these five panels:

“Panel 1:What Are Dark Patterns, and Why Are They Employed?

This panel will discuss the characteristics of dark patterns, different types of dark patterns, the factors and incentives that give rise to dark patterns, and similarities and differences among dark patterns and between dark patterns and analogous sales tactics in the brick-and-mortar environment.”

The above panel will hear from a variety of academics as well as a product designer from Spotify and Harry Brignull, the person who coined the term Dark Patterns and publishes the DarkPatterns.org website.

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Panel 2: How Do Dark Patterns Affect Consumers?
We’ll hear from consumer advocates, user experience design experts, and researchers about the effects that dark patterns have on consumer choices and behavior regarding privacy, purchasing, and content selection, the potential harms of dark patterns, and what can make a dark pattern deceptive or unfair.

Panel 3: How Do Dark Patterns Specifically Affect Communities of Color?

Panel 4: How Do Dark Patterns Target Kids and Teens?

Panel 5: How Can We Best Continue to Address Dark Patterns? Potential Strategies for Dealing with Dark Patterns
The panel will discuss the current legal regime and enforcement challenges, how to prioritize efforts to combat dark patterns, as well as potential regulatory,
educational, technological, and self-regulatory solutions for mitigating the harmful effects of dark patterns on consumers.”

Examining the of Full Scope of Dark Patterns

There exists prior research (Deceived by Design) that focused on companies such as Google and Facebook on the issue of privacy. They discovered that they both consistently made it easy for users to act against their self-interest and made it hard to protect their privacy.

They wrote:

“Dark patterns are considered ethically problematic, because they mislead users into making choices that are not in their interest, and deprive them of their agency.”

What the FTC is looking into encompasses more than just user privacy. They will examine how consumers make purchases online and the cognitive tricks companies use to nudge them into acting against their best interests. This has the potential to disrupt how businesses sell online.

How to Participate in Virtual FTC Workshop

The workshop can be streamed from the FTC.gov website.  The Dark Patterns workshop is scheduled for April 29, 2021 at 10:30am EDT.

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The FTC is also accepting comments and research until May 29, 2021 at Regulations.gov.

Citations

Bringing Dark Patterns to Light: An FTC Workshop

FTC Releases Final Agenda for Dark Patterns Workshop on April 29

Shining a Light on Dark Patterns (Web Page Summary of Research)

Deceived By Design (PDF)
How tech companies use dark patterns to discourage us from exercising our rights to privacy

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Google December Product Reviews Update Affects More Than English Language Sites? via @sejournal, @martinibuster

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Google’s Product Reviews update was announced to be rolling out to the English language. No mention was made as to if or when it would roll out to other languages. Mueller answered a question as to whether it is rolling out to other languages.

Google December 2021 Product Reviews Update

On December 1, 2021, Google announced on Twitter that a Product Review update would be rolling out that would focus on English language web pages.

The focus of the update was for improving the quality of reviews shown in Google search, specifically targeting review sites.

A Googler tweeted a description of the kinds of sites that would be targeted for demotion in the search rankings:

“Mainly relevant to sites that post articles reviewing products.

Think of sites like “best TVs under $200″.com.

Goal is to improve the quality and usefulness of reviews we show users.”

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Google also published a blog post with more guidance on the product review update that introduced two new best practices that Google’s algorithm would be looking for.

The first best practice was a requirement of evidence that a product was actually handled and reviewed.

The second best practice was to provide links to more than one place that a user could purchase the product.

The Twitter announcement stated that it was rolling out to English language websites. The blog post did not mention what languages it was rolling out to nor did the blog post specify that the product review update was limited to the English language.

Google’s Mueller Thinking About Product Reviews Update

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Product Review Update Targets More Languages?

The person asking the question was rightly under the impression that the product review update only affected English language search results.

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But he asserted that he was seeing search volatility in the German language that appears to be related to Google’s December 2021 Product Review Update.

This is his question:

“I was seeing some movements in German search as well.

So I was wondering if there could also be an effect on websites in other languages by this product reviews update… because we had lots of movement and volatility in the last weeks.

…My question is, is it possible that the product reviews update affects other sites as well?”

John Mueller answered:

“I don’t know… like other languages?

My assumption was this was global and and across all languages.

But I don’t know what we announced in the blog post specifically.

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But usually we try to push the engineering team to make a decision on that so that we can document it properly in the blog post.

I don’t know if that happened with the product reviews update. I don’t recall the complete blog post.

But it’s… from my point of view it seems like something that we could be doing in multiple languages and wouldn’t be tied to English.

And even if it were English initially, it feels like something that is relevant across the board, and we should try to find ways to roll that out to other languages over time as well.

So I’m not particularly surprised that you see changes in Germany.

But I also don’t know what we actually announced with regards to the locations and languages that are involved.”

Does Product Reviews Update Affect More Languages?

While the tweeted announcement specified that the product reviews update was limited to the English language the official blog post did not mention any such limitations.

Google’s John Mueller offered his opinion that the product reviews update is something that Google could do in multiple languages.

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One must wonder if the tweet was meant to communicate that the update was rolling out first in English and subsequently to other languages.

It’s unclear if the product reviews update was rolled out globally to more languages. Hopefully Google will clarify this soon.

Citations

Google Blog Post About Product Reviews Update

Product reviews update and your site

Google’s New Product Reviews Guidelines

Write high quality product reviews

John Mueller Discusses If Product Reviews Update Is Global

Watch Mueller answer the question at the 14:00 Minute Mark

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