Dark patterns are user interface elements that are intentionally designed to trick or confuse users. They can do anything from nudge users to hand over their data to encourage them to spend another $5 to play more Candy Crush. Dark patterns serve companies, rather than their users, for an array of opaque reasons the average person will never recognize. But thus far, there’s been nothing to incentivize companies to cut back on dark patterns aside from consumer outrage.
Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Deb Fischer (R-NE) presented a bill this morning, according to CNBC, that would tighten the reins on big web platform holders with “over 100 million active users,” like Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Such modern monopolies are each guilty of leveraging dark patterns at one time or another. Dubbed, “The Deceptive Experiences to Online Users Reduction Act,” Axios says that the bill would make it illegal for companies to “design, modify, or manipulate a user interface with the purpose or substantial effect of obscuring, subverting, or impairing user autonomy, decision making, or choice to obtain consent or user data.” On top of that, it would ban UI design that creates “compulsive usage” in users under 13, and bans various forms of data analysis on young users (for instance, Facebook has been criticized for being able to ad-target teens when they felt “insecure”). Furthermore, companies would have to share data experiments publicly.
From the limited bits of language we’ve seen, the bill appears to be ambitious in its scope. Of course, the bill would need to actually be passed into a law by the Senate and the House of Representatives for that to matter. Its language could go through all sorts of edits along the way. And companies would be policed by the FTC and an as-of-yet unformed, external regulatory committee–meaning enforcement could be tricky.
Even still, this sort of regulation is absolutely necessary in the U.S. Companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon have become intrinsic to functioning in modern society; for many consumers, it would be difficult to boycott them entirely and simply hope they will change. Our only way forward is to ensure that these digital companies really are serving our best interests. And for that to happen, the dark patterns have to go.