A New York Times Editorial Board Member Calls for Regulation of Dark Patterns nytimes.com

New York Times editorial board member Greg Bensinger:

Consider Amazon. The company perfected the one-click checkout. But canceling a $119 Prime subscription is a labyrinthine process that requires multiple screens and clicks.

Or Ticketmaster. Online customers are bombarded with options for ticket insurance, subscription services for razors and other items and, when users navigate through those, they can expect to receive a battery of text messages from the company with no clear option to stop them.

These are examples of “dark patterns,” the techniques that companies use online to get consumers to sign up for things, keep subscriptions they might otherwise cancel or turn over more personal data. They come in countless variations: giant blinking sign-up buttons, hidden unsubscribe links, red X’s that actually open new pages, countdown timers and pre-checked options for marketing spam. Think of them as the digital equivalent of trying to cancel a gym membership.

Design patterns like these sure are unethical, often forcing people to spend a great amount of time to understand byzantine systems of purchasing options and unsubscribe methods.

By the way, how does someone cancel, say, a New York Times subscription?

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The Times calls these two choices — speaking or chatting — “several ways to unsubscribe”, but they both rely on someone else cancelling your subscription. A subscriber has no way of doing so themselves. This arduous process is so well-known that it is in the new Dark Patterns Hall of Shame. But, though Bensinger writes extensively about dark patterns and even links to that Hall of Shame, he does not once acknowledge the Times’ subscription cancellation policies, which makes his concluding paragraph especially rich:

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.