Centre to launch software to detect dark patterns used by firms on web
Consumer affairs ministry collaborates with IIT-Benaras Hindu University for open-source software
The Union government will launch the world’s first software to detect dark patterns on the Internet, which are tricks tech companies use to get users to click features that benefit the company, consumer affairs secretary Rohit Kumar Singh said.
The consumer affairs ministry, in collaboration with Indian Institute of Technology-Benaras Hindu University, on Thursday launched a four-stage hackathon to build an open-source software that will be available as a freely downloadable browser extension and a mobile app, a global first, to alert users to the presence of dark patterns on websites.
Dark patterns are design tactics on a web page intended to lure consumers into making a choice or making a transaction they never intended to. For instance, e-commerce companies could use marketing ploys such as “limited-time offers” that actually never end or fake notifications that suggest a product is going to be “sold out soon”, creating “false urgency”.
The ministry has identified over 10 such dark patterns commonly used by websites that constitute “malpractices” and “unfair trade practices in contravention of section 2(47) of the Consumer Protection Act 2019”, the head of the Central Consumer Protection Authority Nidhi Khare said. “Our aim is to protect consumers.”
The government is preparing draft guidelines which will be notified, but dark patterns are ever-evolving and their instances are on the rise, the consumer affairs secretary said, adding that the department had got “ample feedback on framing regulations and much appreciation” from the public.
A common dark pattern, Khare said, is encountered by users visiting insurance sites and air-ticketing platforms, which gives an option to exit an insurance offer with words that convey a subtle warning: “Yes, I’ll take the risk”. Consumers are tricked into making choices, literally by design, she said.
Some patterns that violate the consumer protection law, as identified by the ministry, include trick questions, which are vaguely worded, recurrent surreptitious software-as-a-service payments, rogue malware and subscription traps. They also include interface interference, or making cancellation of a subscription difficult for the user.
“The app and software to detect such dark patterns will be a public good,” said Prof NS Rajput of the electronics and computer engineering centre of the Indian Institute of Technology, Varanasi.