Lawmakers Reintroduce Bipartisan Bicameral Legislation to Ban Manipulative 'Dark Patterns'
Dec 08 2021
WASHINGTON – Ahead of Wednesday’s Senate hearing with the head of Instagram, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and John Thune (R-SD) along with Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE-AL) and Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH-16) have re-introduced the Deceptive Experiences to Online Users Reduction (DETOUR) Act to prohibit large online platforms from using deceptive user interfaces, known as “dark patterns,” to trick consumers into handing over their personal data. The DETOUR Act would also prohibit these platforms from using features that result in compulsive usage by children.
The term “dark patterns” is used to describe online interfaces in websites and apps designed to intentionally manipulate users into taking actions they would otherwise not. These design tactics, drawn from extensive behavioral psychology research, are frequently used by social media platforms to mislead consumers into agreeing to settings and practices advantageous to the company.
“For years dark patterns have allowed social media companies to use deceptive tactics to convince users to hand over personal data without understanding what they are consenting to. The DETOUR Act will end this practice while working to instill some level of transparency and oversight that the tech world currently lacks,” said Sen. Warner, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and former technology executive. “Consumers should be able to make their own informed choices on when to share personal information without having to navigate intentionally misleading interfaces and design features deployed by social media companies.”
“Manipulative user interfaces that confuse people and trick consumers into sharing access to their personal information have become all too common online. Our bipartisan legislation would rein in the use of these dishonest interfaces and boost consumer trust. It’s time we put an end to ‘dark patterns’ and other manipulative practices to protect children online and ensure the American people can better protect their personal data,” said Sen. Fischer, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee.
“Dark patterns are manipulative tactics used to trick consumers into sharing their personal data. These tactics undermine consumers’ autonomy and privacy, yet they are becoming pervasive on many online platforms. This legislation would help prevent the major online platforms from using such manipulative tactics to mislead consumers, and it would prohibit behavioral experiments on users without their informed consent,” said Sen. Klobuchar, a member of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees.
“We live in an environment where large online operators often deploy manipulative practices or ‘dark patterns’ to obtain consent to collect user data,” said Sen. Thune, ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband. “This bipartisan legislation would create a path forward to strengthen consumer transparency by holding large online operators accountable when they subject their users to behavioral or psychological research for the purpose of promoting engagement on their platforms.”
“My colleagues and I are introducing the DETOUR Act because Congress and the American public are tired of tech companies evading scrutiny and avoiding accountability for their actions. Despite congressional hearings and public outcries, many of these tech companies continue to trick and manipulate people into making choices against their own self-interest,” said Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester. “Our bill would address some common tactics these companies use, like intentionally deceptive user interfaces that trick people into handing over their personal information. Our children, seniors, veterans, people of color, even our very way of life is at stake. We must act. And today, we are.”
“Social media has connected our communities, but also had detrimental effects on our society. Big tech companies that control these platforms currently have unregulated access to a wealth of information about their users and have used nontransparent methods, such as dark patterns, to gather additional information and manipulate users,” said Rep. Anthony Gonzalez. “The DETOUR Act would make these platforms more transparent through prohibiting the use of dark patterns. We live in a transformative period of technology, and it is important that the tech which permeates our day to day lives is transparent.”
Dark patterns can take various forms, often exploiting the power of defaults to push users into agreeing to terms stacked in favor of the service provider. Some examples of these actions include: a deliberate obscuring of alternative choices or settings through design or other means; the use of privacy settings that push users to ‘agree’ as the default option, while users looking for more privacy-friendly options often must click through a much longer process, detouring through multiple screens. Other times, users cannot find the alternative option, if it exists at all, and simply give up looking.
The result is that large online platforms have an unfair advantage over users and potential competitors in forcing consumers to give up personal data such as their contacts, messages, web activity, or location to the benefit of the company.
“Tech companies have clearly demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to self-regulate. So many companies choose to utilize manipulative design features that trick kids into giving up more personal information and compulsive usage of their platforms for the sake of increasing their profits and engagement without regard for the harm it inflicts on kids,” said Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense. “Common Sense supports Senators Warner and Fischer and Representatives Blunt Rochester and Gonzalez on this bill, which would rightfully hold companies accountable for these practices so kids can have a healthier and safer online experience.”
“'Dark patterns' and manipulative design techniques on the internet deceive consumers. We need solutions that protect people online and empower consumers to shape their own experience. We appreciate Senator Warner and Senator Fischer's work to address these misleading practices,” said Jenn Taylor Hodges, Head of U.S. Public Policy at Mozilla.
“Manipulative design, efforts to undermine users’ independent decision making, and secret psychological experiments conducted by corporations are everywhere online. The exploitative commercial surveillance model thrives on taking advantage of unsuspecting users. The DETOUR Act would put a stop to this: prohibiting online companies from designing their services to impair autonomy and to cultivate compulsive usage by children under 13. It would also prohibit companies from conducting online user experiments without consent. If enacted, the DETOUR Act will make an important contribution to living in a fairer and more civilized digital world,” said Katharina Kopp, Director of Policy at Center for Digital Democracy.
The Deceptive Experiences To Online Users Reduction (DETOUR) Act aims to curb manipulative behavior by prohibiting the largest online platforms (those with over 100 million monthly active users) from relying on user interfaces that intentionally impair user autonomy, decision-making, or choice. The legislation:
- Prohibits large online operators from designing, modifying, or manipulating 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
- Prohibits subdividing or segmenting consumers for the purposes of behavioral experiments without a consumer’s informed consent, which cannot be buried in a general contract or service agreement. This includes routine disclosures for large online operators, not less than once every 90 days, on any behavioral or psychological experiments to users and the public. Additionally, the bill would require large online operators to create an internal Independent Review Board to provide oversight on these practices to safeguard consumer welfare.
- Prohibits user design intended to create compulsive usage among children under the age of 13 years old (as currently defined by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act).
- Directs the FTC to create rules within one year of enactment to carry out the requirements related to informed consent, Independent Review Boards, and Professional Standards Bodies.
Sen. Warner first introduced the DETOUR ACT in 2019 and has been raising concerns about the implications of social media companies’ reliance on dark patterns for years. In 2014, Sen. Warner asked the FTC to investigate Facebook’s use of dark patterns in an experiment involving nearly 700,000 users designed to study the emotional impact of manipulating information on their News Feeds.
Sen. Warner is one of Congress’ leading voices in demanding accountability and user protections from social media companies. In addition to the DETOUR Act, Sen. Warner has introduced and written numerous bills aimed designed to improve transparency, privacy, and accountability on social media. These include the Safeguarding Against Fraud, Exploitation, Threats, Extremism and Consumer Harms (SAFE TECH) Act – legislation that allow social media companies to be held accountable for enabling cyber-stalking, targeted harassment, and discrimination across platforms; the Designing Accounting Safeguards to Help Broaden Oversight and Regulations on Data (DASHBOARD) Act, bipartisan legislation that would require data harvesting companies to tell consumers and financial regulators exactly what data they are collecting from consumers and how it is being leveraged by the platform for profit; and the Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching (ACCESS) Act, legislation that would encourage market-based competition to dominant social media platforms by requiring the largest companies to make user data portable – and their services interoperable – with other platforms, and to allow users to designate a trusted third-party service to manage their privacy and account settings, if they so choose.
Full text of the bill is available here.