The California Exception

You know how I linked to that New York Times editorial pleading for regulation of dark patterns? Turns out I missed something in the Timesconvoluted cancellation policies. They give you the choice of speaking with someone over the telephone or speaking with someone using an instant messenger. Both have similar hours of operation, but the latter has a curious carve-out:

Click the “Chat” button to the right or bottom of this page to chat with a Care Advocate. Chat is accessible between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. E.T. on Monday – Friday, and 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. E.T. on weekends and holidays (or 24 hours a day 7 days a week for subscribers in California).

It turns out you have the luxurious option of cancelling at your own discretion in California because there is a law that mandates more flexible unsubscribe options than the Times’ dark patterns permit.

Shan Wang, writing for Nieman Lab in 2018 (via Mustapha Hamoui):

But a California law that went into effect July 1 aims to stop companies from blockading customers looking to cancel their services — along with the practice of sneakily sliding them into another month’s subscription without much clarity on the real, full cost of the service. Among the changes: It bans companies from forcing you to, say, call a hard-to-find telephone number to cancel a subscription that you purchased online.

Once again, I point to Greg Bensinger’s final paragraph in that Times editorial:

Companies can’t be expected to reform themselves; they use dark patterns because they work. And while no laws will be able to anticipate or prevent every type of dark pattern, lawmakers can begin to chip away at the imbalance between consumers and corporations by cracking down on these clearly deceptive practices.

The Times could certainly apply its comparatively generous cancellation policies for Californian users to all subscribers who wish to cancel. There is nothing stopping it from doing so, but it will clearly delay doing so until mandated by national lawmakers.

Update: Sometime between June and August 2021, the Times updated its chat cancellation policies to permit 24/7 availability to all subscribers.