“Dark patterns”: European authorities root out manipulative practices by online stores

Spot checks of online retailers by the EC and its consumer protection partners have revealed that many are still using practices intended to trick consumers into making purchases. 

An inspection of 399 online shops by the European Commission (EC) and the national consumer protection authorities of 23 EU member states plus Norway and Iceland, known collectively as the CPC Network, has found that 148 are using manipulative practices aimed at misleading purchasers.  

Some of the methods, often referred to as dark patterns, include the use of fake countdown timers that suggest to buyers that their desired item will be gone if not bought straight away as well as web interfaces designed to pressure consumers into purchases, subscriptions or other possibly unwanted choices. The worst method, found in 70 cases, was the use of hidden information that could affect the cost of the products being sold, including huge delivery charges.  

The sweep also included the apps of 102 websites screened, 27 of which also deployed at least one of these three categories of dark patterns.  

“Our screening shows that nearly 40% of the online shopping websites rely on manipulative practices to exploit consumers’ vulnerabilities or trick them,” Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders says. “This behaviour is clearly wrong and against consumer protection.” 

The CPC Network and other relevant authorities will now contact the traders and give them a chance to come into compliance or take additional action if national procedures deem it necessary.  

“Today, we already have binding tools to help tackle such issues and I call on national authorities to make use of their enforcement capacities to take relevant action and fight these practices,” Reynders adds. “In parallel, the Commission is reviewing all consumer legislation to ensure it is fit for the digital age, including to assess whether dark patterns are adequately covered.”  


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Photo source: Andrew Neel for Unsplash