FTC Claims That Amazon Used “Dark Patterns” to Manipulate Consumers

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission sued Amazon in a federal court in the state of Washington. The complaint alleges two main types of wrongdoing by the giant online marketplace. First, the FTC argues that Amazon caused consumers to enroll in the Amazon Prime membership program without their consent. In addition, it claims that Amazon intentionally made it hard for people who had signed up for Prime to cancel their subscriptions. The FTC says that both of these problems involved the use of what it calls “dark patterns.” These are elements of website design that manipulate the user experience and trick consumers into making decisions that they would not have made on their own.

The complaint also notes that some Amazon employees urged the executives responsible for Prime to make changes addressing these problems. However, Amazon leadership allegedly rejected, undermined, or even undid changes that would have helped reduce non-consensual enrollment or made the cancellation process simpler.

The FTC identified several potential issues with the checkout process at Amazon. This frequently invites consumers to join Amazon Prime for a monthly fee of about $15. The FTC argues that Amazon made it hard for consumers to find the option to buy the item that they wanted without signing up for the membership. It also claims that the button at the end of the process sometimes did not clearly tell consumers that they were signing up for a Prime membership at the same time as buying the item.

Meanwhile, the complaint claims that Amazon intentionally complicated the process of cancelling a Prime membership. Amazon allegedly made it hard to find the “cancellation flow,” which is the series of steps that is triggered when a consumer initiates a cancellation request. The online marketplace then forced Prime subscribers to go through a long series of redirects. These invited the consumer to stay a Prime member for a discount or turn off the auto-renew feature, or simply change their mind about cancelling the membership. A consumer could not cancel until they went through all of these pages. According to internal Amazon documents, the company intentionally elongated the process of canceling a membership to reduce cancellations. This project was called “Iliad,” a reference to the ancient Greek epic poem that chronicled the Trojan War. (The complaint notes that Amazon changed the Prime cancellation process for some subscribers after the FTC began its investigation but before it filed the complaint.)

Substantial sections of the complaint are redacted for now, meaning that the public cannot read many of the details of the allegations. However, the FTC has told the federal court that it does not believe that this secrecy is needed. Thus, more details may become publicly available as the case progresses.

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