An online company would show a particular price to the customer and then quickly increase the cost after analysing consumer behaviour or detecting any kind of desperation.
The Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) has notified guidelines for the prevention and regulation of dark patterns, which refer to tactics used by online platforms to manipulate or heavily influence customers to make certain choices.
The move by the country’s top consumer watchdog is likely to restrict malpractices on online travel and e-commerce platforms, according to executives.
The Guidelines for Prevention and Regulation of Dark Patterns, 2023, issued under section 18 of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, were notified by the CCPA in the Official Gazette on November 30.
These guidelines, prohibiting dark pattern practices, would apply to all platforms, systematically offering goods or services in India including advertisers and sellers.
‘No person, including any platform, shall engage in any dark pattern practice,’ the guidelines state.
“It was time to bring online booking especially airlines and hotels to book. The guidelines have a great impact as they enable regulators to go after the erring players,” said K Narasimhan, advocate, Madras high court.
“I feel that even hospitals or online grocers, where basket sneaking is prevalent, will get reduced.”
E-commerce industry executives, while welcoming the guidelines, pointed out that some key clauses were broad and ambiguous.
“To avoid any regulatory confusion, which could potentially burden the judiciary, it is crucial for regulators to revisit these provisions and publish clarifications in the interest of consumers and the industry equally,” said an executive.
Another e-commerce representative said online was just 6 per cent of the overall retail industry in the country and there is fear that such guidelines could be misused by law enforcement agencies to crack down on companies which have legitimate business practices.
Salman Waris, managing partner at tech law firm TechLegis Advocates & Solicitors, said the new guidelines fall short of giving teeth to the rule as the CCPA has removed clause 8 which stated that the provisions of the Act [Consumer Protection Act, 2019] shall apply to any contravention of the guidelines.
The notified guidelines also state that the specified dark pattern practices and illustrations ‘provide only guidance and shall not be construed as an interpretation of law or as a binding opinion or decision as different facts or conditions may entail different interpretations’.
This could lead to confusion and ambiguity while increasing the compliance burden on the e-commerce, online and consumer Internet industry.
There are many policy backers too.
“The rules for dark patterns under the Consumer Protection Act is a step in the right direction to reduce consumer manipulation by sellers and platforms”, said Sachin Taparia, founder, LocalCircles, a community and consumer platform.
While LocalCircles is seeking detailed consumer feedback on dark patterns for all major platforms, Taparia said the preliminary consumer feedback indicates that travel (flight and hotel booking), event ticketing, and subscription services (app stores, software and OTT) have the highest incidences of dark patterns followed by other sectors like e-commerce, food and taxi aggregators.
For example, an online travel or hotel booking company would show a particular price of the ticket or hotel room to the customer and then quickly increase the cost after analysing the consumer behaviour or detecting any kind of desperation, according to industry experts.
When an e-commerce platform shows the total number of people who bought a particular product, such data provides transparency.
“However the problem arises when such platforms create a false sense of urgency, where they mention that only one or two products or tickets are available and charge higher price,” said an industry representative.
“These guidelines would bring in more ethics into the e-commerce platforms, so that nobody takes consumers for a ride.”
The guidelines provide a list of specified dark patterns including false urgency, basket sneaking, confirm shaming, forced action, subscription trap, interface interference, bait and switch, drip pricing, disguise advertisement, nagging, trick question, Saas billing and rogue malwares.
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com
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