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Online Ads: Manipulation and Consumer Protection

Context
The Union Consumer Affairs Ministry intends to create specific recommendations to prevent “dark patterns” that are frequently found in online marketing.

Relevance

GS Paper 3 – Issues related to Advertisement and Consumer Protection

Mains Question

The rise in dark patterns in internet advertising as a result of India’s expanding online market has raised questions regarding consumer liberty and privacy. Study how dark patterns affect users and the internet ecosystem. Offer strategies for preventing dark patterns and fostering fruitful consumer contact in the digital sphere. (250 words)


The dark patterns:

  • The term, which Harry Brignull first used in 2010, describes user interfaces that are specifically created to deceive or manipulate people into making decisions that are harmful to their interests.
  • Dark patterns include a variety of deceptive techniques, including pressure tactics, confirm shame, forced action, pestering, subscription traps, interface interference, bait and switch, hidden fees, and cloaked advertisements.
  • These trends give rise to worries about consumer autonomy, financial loss, privacy invasions, trust in digital infrastructure, and India’s expanding online market.
  • To address misleading advertising practises, legislative measures such as the Consumer Protection Act 2019 and the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) code have been established. However, more work needs to be done to safeguard customers and encourage fruitful interaction online.

Major categories of dark patterns include:

Dark patterns are tricksy design strategies used by websites and apps to sway user behaviour. They influence people to make decisions that they might not have under normal conditions by taking advantage of cognitive biases and emotions. Dark patterns can take many different forms.

  1. Creating a sense of urgency to encourage customers to act quickly and make decisions or purchases.
  2. Basket sneaking is the practise of adding more goods or services to the user’s shopping basket without their knowledge or consent.
  3. Confirm Shaming: The act of criticising or blaming customers for not conforming in order to make them feel guilty or pressure them into taking a certain action.
  4. Forcing consumers to take actions they may not want to, such joining up for a service to access material, is known as “forced action.”
  5. Nagging: Constantly pestering users with obnoxious and repetitive demands or complaints in an effort to change their behaviour.
  6. Subscription traps: Making it simple for customers to subscribe to a service but difficult for them to cancel it, frequently through secretive or convoluted cancellation procedures.
  7. Interface Interference: Making it difficult or posing barriers in the way of users’ ability to carry out specific tasks, such terminating subscriptions or deleting accounts.
  8. Bait and switch is the practise of marketing one good or service while providing another, usually of lesser quality or value.
  9. Hidden charges: Hiding extra charges until customers have already made up their minds to buy.
  10. Disguised Ads: Making ads that look like other content categories, including news stories or user-generated postings, to obfuscate the distinction between advertising and legitimate information.

Impacts and Concerns:

The prominence of dark patterns raises a number of worries that have an effect on customers and the internet environment, including:

Dark patterns affect or influence customers’ choices, causing them to make decisions that are not in their best interests. This is the first harm to consumer autonomy. Deceptive practises and false or purchased reviews lead consumers astray and undermine their autonomy.

  1. 2. Financial Loss: Due to the dark patterns’ deceptive practises, consumers may wind up paying more for things, incurring unforeseen costs, or being persuaded to make pointless purchases.
  2. 3. Privacy Harms: Dark patterns may result in the sharing of personal information with other organisations without complete customer knowledge or agreement, creating privacy hazards and the possibility for exploitation of personal data.
  3. 4. Trust and Engagement: Dark patterns that are frequently used might reduce customer trust in digital infrastructure, businesses, and advertising. Due to dishonest practises, it could also result in decreased engagement and participation in online platforms.
  4. 5. India’s online realm has expanded significantly, thanks to a sizable population of internet users and a thriving consumer digital economy. Dark patterns are more prevalent online as the market grows, which calls for the development of special rules to safeguard customers.

Regulations and the Way Ahead:

To address misleading advertising practises and safeguard consumers from the effects of dark patterns, a number of regulations have been put in place:

  1. Department of Consumer Affairs: To address consumer complaints and guarantee transparency in fees and algorithms, the department has summoned taxi and two-wheeler aggregators. A working committee has also been established to address the problem of phoney online reviews.
  2. Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI): Using its current code, ASCI has been targeting deceptive advertisements, especially those that use dark patterns. The ASCI code emphasises the necessity for advertisements to not deceive customers and is applicable to online advertising as well.
  3. The Consumer Protection Act of 2019 forbids deceptive business practises that influence consumer decision-making and restrict their right to information. Unfair practises include deceptive routines and manipulative strategies.

While these steps lay the groundwork for consumer protection, more steps as well as a culture that values and actively engages with consumers are required. Some actions that can be taken are as follows:

  1. Improved Monitoring and Detection: To spot and identify manipulative behaviours and dark patterns, regulators and self-regulatory bodies can invest in artificial intelligence and machine learning technology. By doing so, it will be easier to spot unlawful adverts and punish offenders.
  2. Informed consent and transparency: Customers should be completely informed about the implications of their decisions and should not be pressured or duped into taking unwanted actions. Organisations should place a high priority on transparency and acquire informed permission without using dishonest means.
  3. Improved Consumer Education: It’s critical to inform consumers about dark trends and their potential effects. People can become more capable of identifying manipulative tactics and making informed decisions by participating in awareness initiatives and receiving information.
  4. Cooperation and International Efforts: To share best practises, knowledge, and technology for identifying and addressing dark patterns, regulators and self-regulatory bodies should work with their international counterparts. Global norms and guidelines can be established with the aid of international cooperation to address deceptive practises in online advertising.
  5. Compliance and Enforcement: Organisations participating in questionable practises may be discouraged by strict enforcing of current laws and penalties for non-compliance. This guarantees that businesses respect consumer rights and prioritise ethical advertising practises.
  6. Continuous Evaluation and Adaptation: It is crucial to continuously assess the effectiveness of regulatory measures and modify them to address new difficulties as the digital ecosystem changes. Guidelines and laws relating to dark patterns can be improved with the use of frequent evaluations, stakeholder consultations, and feedback channels.

Conclusion:

Consumer autonomy, financial security, privacy, and faith in digital infrastructure are all significantly at stake due to dark trends in online ads. The Union Consumer Affairs Ministry’s choice to provide detailed rules to limit these deceptive tactics is a positive development. However, to properly counteract dark patterns, a multi-pronged strategy incorporating legislative measures, improved consumer education, technical improvements, and international cooperation is required. Organisations and regulators may build an online ecosystem that prioritises consumer welfare and encourages a fair and ethical advertising environment by cultivating a culture of customer respect, openness, and meaningful participation.


June 2024
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