California is banning companies from using 'dark patterns,' a sneaky website design that makes things like canceling a subscription frustratingly difficult

California is banning companies from using 'dark patterns,' a sneaky website design that makes things like canceling a subscription frustratingly difficult
Xavier Becerra testifies during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on his nomination to become Secretary of Health and Human Services on February 24, 2021.Michael Reynolds/Pool via AP
  • California banned companies from using "dark patterns," or tricks to get uses to sell information.
  • About one out of every ten e-commerce websites uses dark patterns, according to a 2019 study.
  • Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are calling for greater regulation over dark patterns.

California on Monday announced new protections for residents seeking to protect their personal information.

As of March 15, the California Consumer Privacy Act bans companies from using "dark patterns," or website designs that can confuse or trick users into opting into selling their information. The law bans tricks like burdening users with confusing language or forcing them to click through multiple screens during the process of opting out of selling their information.

California is the first state to ban dark patterns. Washington state senators introduced a similar bill earlier this year.
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Businesses that continue to use dark patterns will receive a 30-day window to change their website design or risk further punishment. If a company doesn't comply, the law states it will be "liable for a civil penalty under laws relating to unfair competition in an action to be brought by the Attorney General."

"California is at the cutting edge of online privacy protection, and this newest approval by OAL clears even more hurdles in empowering consumers to exercise their rights under the California Consumer Privacy Act," Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a release. "These protections ensure that consumers will not be confused or misled when seeking to exercise their data privacy rights."

What are "dark patterns"?

Dark patterns are website designs that companies use to manipulate user behavior. User experience expert Harry Brignull coined the term in 2010.
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Brignull identifies many different types of type patterns, including:

  • "Roach motel," or when a user signs up for a service easily but has a difficult time canceling
  • "Price comparison prevention," or when e-commerce websites make comparing the prices of two products difficult
  • "Misdirection," or when website designs purposefully focuses user direction on one thing to distract from something else
"The CCPA is a really positive step forward for consumer privacy in California and we can hope that other states will follow suit," Brignull told Insider. "It makes a range of privacy-related dark patterns illegal - including certain kinds of trick wording, hidden small print, misdirection and bait-and-switch." About one out of every ten e-commerce websites uses dark patterns, according to a 2019 study by researchers at Princeton University and the University of Chicago. Tactics like displaying countdown timers for expiring deals and sneaking items into checkout carts "shame" customers into making choices that benefit the retailer, the researchers found.
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Retailers aren't the only ones using dark patterns. In 2018, TechCrunch reported scammers had used dark patterns to trick iPhone users into signing up for expensive app subscriptions. A study by a Norwegian tech watchdog found Facebook and Google use dark patterns to push users into making decisions that can compromise their privacy. UX experts recently said Robinhood uses dark patterns to get users to make trades. Spokespeople for Facebook, Google, and Robinhood did not immediately respond to Insider's request to comment on the past study's findings or the new protections in California.

"This is manipulating users into making decisions they wouldn't otherwise make and buying stuff they don't need," Gunes Acar, a former postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy, previously told Insider. "Showing a timer and saying you only have 5 minutes left - there's a sense of urgency that's questionable at best."

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are calling for greater regulation over dark patterns. In 2019, Senators Mark Warner, a Democrat, and Deb Fischer, a Republican, introduced a bill banning tech firms from using dark patterns. Federal Trade Commission commissioner Rohit Chopra, who served under Trump and now Biden, has spoken out against dark patterns.
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