The Department of Consumer Affairs has written to online platforms “strongly advising” them to refrain from using any manipulative design or pattern on user interfaces that may hamper consumer interests.This move is to check on the proliferation of dark patterns, which include manipulative practices such as disguised ads, tactics to create false urgency, or forcing consumers to sign up for a service in order.
The letter has been sent to players such as Google, Amazon, Flipkart, Facebook, Swiggy, Zomato, Uber, and Ola, among others.
Speaking to media on Friday, Rohit Kumar Singh, Secretary, Department of Consumer Affairs, said the Ministry had earlier this month also held a meeting with these players, asking them not to indulge in practices that deceive or manipulate consumer choices.
“We have now written to all these players asking them not to engage in ‘unfair trade practices’ by incorporating dark patterns in their online interface to manipulate consumer choice and violate consumer rights; otherwise, we will take action, and we have begun taking complaints,” he added. The Ministry is also making efforts to sensitise consumers, encouraging them to report instances of dark patterns to the consumer helpline.
Dark patterns involve using a design to trick, coerce, or influence consumers to make choices that are not in their best interests. Earlier this month, self-regulatory body ASCI released guidelines to check on dark patterns, which will be enforced later this year.
Singh added that “subscription traps” have been seen as one of the most prevalent dark patterns. It involves tactics that make it easy for consumers to sign up for a subscription but difficult to cancel it.
Websites or apps are also seen using dark patterns to add additional products or services to the shopping cart without user consent. Bait and Switch is another pattern that involves advertising one product or service but delivering another, often of lower quality. Hidden costs and disguised ads are other examples of dark patterns.
Singh said that regulators in markets such as the EU, US and UK have begun to take action against players using dark patterns.
The Ministry can direct online players to discontinue certain practices, besides unfair trade practices that can attract jail terms under the Consumer Protection Act.
Guidelines for influencers
Meanwhile, Singh said that after issuing generic guidelines on disclosures for social media influencers, is next looking at issuing more specific guidelines in certain areas. ”After further due diligence, we have realised that in the area of health, the issue accentuates further. Influencers without any expertise endorse health products or encourage their followers to consume certain products. So we will come out with guidelines for health influencers. Also, finfluencers are advising followers to invest in various financial products. So, we are working with SEBI on guidelines for finfluencers,” Singh added.