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Event Description

The Federal Trade Commission hosted a virtual workshop on April 29, 2021 to examine digital “dark patterns,” a term that has been used to describe a range of potentially manipulative user interface designs used on websites and mobile apps.

“Bringing Dark Patterns to Light: An FTC Workshop” explored the ways in which user interfaces can have the effect, intentionally or unintentionally, of obscuring, subverting, or impairing consumer autonomy, decision-making, or choice. For example, some sites sneak extra items into a consumer’s online shopping cart, or require users to navigate a maze of screens and confusing questions to avoid being charged for unwanted products or services.

The FTC workshop brought together researchers, legal experts, consumer advocates, and industry professionals to examine what dark patterns are and how they affect consumers and the marketplace. Some of the topics the workshop examined included:

  • how dark patterns differ from sales tactics employed by brick-and-mortar stores;
  • how they affect consumer behavior, including potential harms;
  • whether some groups of consumers are unfairly targeted or are especially vulnerable;
  • what laws, rules, and norms regulate the use of dark patterns; and
  • whether additional rules, standards, or enforcement efforts are needed to protect consumers.

The workshop will be held virtually and webcast on the FTC’s website at FTC.gov. A link to the webcast will be posted to FTC.gov and the event page shortly before the workshop begins. Registration is not required to watch the workshop. The final agenda and list of speakers is posted below.

To assist the agency’s analysis of this issue, the FTC seeks public comments on the following topics to be discussed at the workshop. The FTC is particularly interested in data, studies, research, and other empirical evidence addressing these issues. Interested parties may submit comments electronically at Regulations.gov. The deadline for submitting comments is May 29, 2021.

  1. Defining Dark Patterns. What is a dark pattern? Is there an accepted definition of the term? What features do dark patterns have in common, and how do they differ? How do dark patterns differ from other types of persuasive technology and techniques (e.g., design features known as “nudges”)? How do dark patterns differ from analogous sales and advertising tactics in the brick-and-mortar context? Are they different in scale, in kind, or both?
  2. Prevalence of Dark Patterns. How prevalent are dark patterns in the marketplace? Are there particular industries, subsets of industries, or stages of companies (e.g., startups) where dark patterns in general or specific dark patterns are especially prevalent or, conversely, where participants are unlikely to use dark patterns? Are dark patterns more prevalent on certain platforms or mediums (e.g., mobile apps, video games, social media platforms)?
     
  3. Factors Affecting Dark Pattern Adoption. What factors influence a company or organization’s decision to employ dark patterns? What role has A/B and other user experience testing played in the development and spread of dark patterns? How has “growth hacking” and related strategies contributed to dark patterns? Why do many companies employ the same or similar dark patterns?
  4. Dark Patterns and Machine Learning. How are artificial intelligence and machine learning affecting dark patterns? Is there empirical evidence of companies using artificial intelligence or machine learning to personalize and serve dark patterns to individual consumers or specific groups of consumers?
  5. Effectiveness of Dark Patterns. How effective are dark patterns at influencing consumer choice, decision-making, or behavior? Are some dark patterns more effective than others? Which ones are most effective? What makes them more effective?
  6. Harms of Dark Patterns. What harms do dark patterns pose to consumers or competition? For example, do certain dark patterns lead consumers to purchase products or services that they might not otherwise have purchased, pay for products or services without knowing or intending to, provide personal information, waste time, spend more on a particular product or service, remain enrolled in a service they might otherwise cancel, or develop harmful usage habits? Are any groups of consumers more likely than others to be affected by dark patterns (e.g., young children, teens, older adults, persons with low income)? Do dark patterns have a disproportionate impact on consumers of color or other historically disadvantaged groups? Do dark patterns have any pro-consumer or pro-competition benefits? What are they?
  7. Consumer Perception of Dark Patterns. How able are consumers to detect dark patterns? Are consumers able to detect some dark patterns better than others? Even when consumers detect a dark pattern, are they likely to understand how it is influencing their behavior? Do any disclosures made in connection with dark patterns help consumers detect and avoid them?
  8. Market Constraints and Self-Regulation. Do market forces (e.g., competition and reputational concerns) sufficiently prevent companies from using harmful dark patterns? How responsive are companies to the potential reputational effect of being labeled as having used a dark pattern by organizations such as DarkPatterns.org? What self-regulatory measures are companies and other stakeholders taking to mitigate the harms of dark patterns? Are there any industry standards regarding the use of dark patterns? How is compliance with any such standards monitored and enforced?
  9. Solutions. What would effective prevention, mitigation, and remediation of the harmful effects of dark patterns look like? What role can industry play in preventing, mitigating, and remediating the harmful effects of dark patterns? What types of dark patterns or use cases of dark patterns should the FTC and other government regulators focus on when bringing enforcement actions and engaging in other initiatives to combat dark patterns that are deceptive or unfair, or violate the law in other ways? Given that consumers may be unaware of dark patterns’ effects on their behavior and decisions and therefore less likely to complain, what can the FTC and other regulators do to identify and combat deceptive, unfair, or otherwise unlawful dark patterns?
  • 10:30 am

    Welcome and Opening Remarks

    Rebecca Kelly Slaughter
    Acting Chairwoman
    Federal Trade Commission

    The Honorable Mark R. Warner
    United States Senator from the Commonwealth of Virginia

    The Honorable Lisa Blunt Rochester
    United States Representative from the State of Delaware

    10:50 am

    Panel 1: What Are Dark Patterns, and Why Are They Employed?

    The FTC has confronted dark patterns in its enforcement work for years, including in recent cases such as ABCMouse and Progressive Leasing. This panel will discuss the characteristics of dark patterns, different types of dark patterns, the factors and incentives that give rise to dark patterns, and similarities and differences among dark patterns and between dark patterns and analogous sales tactics in the brick-and-mortar environment.

    Harry Brignull
    Founder, darkpatterns.org

    Johanna T. Gunawan
    Doctoral Student, Northeastern University

    Katharina Kopp
    Deputy Director, Center for Digital Democracy

    Arunesh Mathur
    Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy, Princeton University

    Kat Zhou
    Product designer, Spotify
    Creator of <Design Ethically>

    Moderators:
    Min Hee Kim, Investigator, Office of Technology Research and Investigation, Federal Trade Commission
    Miry Kim, Attorney, Division of Marketing Practices, Federal Trade Commission

    11:45 am

    Presentation: Shining a Light on Dark Patterns

    Professor Lior Strahilevitz will present findings from his paper with Jamie Luguri, “Shining a Light on Dark Patterns,” based on empirical research involving consumers’ reactions to graduated levels of dark patterns aimed at manipulating them into paying for unwanted identity theft protection services.

    Lior J. Strahilevitz
    Sidley Austin Professor of Law, University of Chicago Law School

    12:00 pm

    Lunch Break

    12:30 pm

    Panel 2: How Do Dark Patterns Affect Consumers?

    We’ll hear from consumer advocates, user experience design experts, and researchers about the effects that dark patterns have on consumer choices and behavior regarding privacy, purchasing, and content selection, the potential harms of dark patterns, and what can make a dark pattern deceptive or unfair.

    Ryan Calo
    Lane Powell and D. Wayne Gittinger Professor, University of Washington School of Law
    Founding Co-Director, UW Tech Policy Lab

    Jennifer King
    Privacy and Data Policy Fellow, Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence

    Jonathan Mayer
    Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Public Affairs, Princeton University

    Finn Lützow-Holm Myrstad
    Director of Digital Policy, Norwegian Consumer Council

    Moderators:
    Andrea Arias, Attorney, Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, Federal Trade Commission
    Evan Rose, Attorney, Western Region San Francisco, Federal Trade Commission

    1:15 pm

    Panel 3: How Do Dark Patterns Specifically Affect Communities of Color?

    Communities of color have historically been disadvantaged in the marketplace, and those systemic biases have carried over into the online world. In this panel, advocates and experts will discuss the especially pernicious effects of dark patterns on communities of color, drawing on research and real-life case studies.

    Jasmine McNealy
    Associate Professor of Telecommunication, University of Florida

    Stephanie Nguyen
    Research Scientist, Civic Science Fellow, Rita Allen Foundation

    Mutale Nkonde
    Chief Executive Officer, AI for the People
    Fellow, Stanford University

    Kelly Quinn
    Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Communication, University of Illinois at Chicago

    Moderator:
    Rosario Mendez, Attorney, Division of Consumer and Business Education, Federal Trade Commission

    2:00 pm

    Panel 4: How Do Dark Patterns Target Kids and Teens?

    Using visuals, survey data, and real-life examples, this panel will discuss how dark patterns are targeted at children and teens, why kids are especially susceptible to these tactics, and the effects of this targeting on kids, teens, and their families.

    Criscillia Benford
    Board Member, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood
    Advisory Board Member, Children's Screen Time Action Network

    Dona Fraser
    Senior Vice President, Privacy Initiatives, BBB National Programs

    Josh Nelson
    Campaign Director, ParentsTogether

    Jenny Radesky
    Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Michigan Medical School

    Moderator:
    Sam Jacobson, Attorney, Division of Financial Practices, Federal Trade Commission

    2:45 pm

    Break

    3:00 pm

    Panel 5: How Can We Best Continue to Address Dark Patterns? Potential Strategies for Dealing with Dark Patterns

    The panel will discuss the current legal regime and enforcement challenges, how to prioritize efforts to combat dark patterns, as well as potential regulatory, educational, technological, and self-regulatory solutions for mitigating the harmful effects of dark patterns on consumers.

    Brigitte Acoca
    Head, Consumer Policy Unit, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

    Laura Brett
    Vice President, National Advertising Division and New York Office Leader, BBB National Programs

    Maureen Mahoney
    Senior Policy Analyst, Consumer Reports

    Jennifer Rimm
    Assistant Attorney General, Office of Consumer Protection, Public Advocacy Division
    Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia

    Lior J. Strahilevitz
    Sidley Austin Professor of Law, University of Chicago Law School

    Lauren E. Willis
    Associate Dean for Research & Professor of Law, LMU Loyola Law School
    Co-founder, Consumer Law Scholars Conference

    Moderator:
    Reid Tepfer, Attorney, Southwest Region, Federal Trade Commission

    4:15 pm

    Closing Remarks

    Daniel Kaufman
    Acting Director, Bureau of Consumer Protection, Federal Trade Commission

  • Request for Comments

    To assist the agency’s analysis of this issue, the FTC seeks public comments on the following topics to be discussed at the workshop. The FTC is particularly interested in data, studies, research, and other empirical evidence addressing these issues. Interested parties may submit comments electronically at Regulations.gov. The deadline for submitting comments is May 29, 2021.

FTC Privacy Policy

Under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) or other laws, we may be required to disclose to outside organizations the information you provide when you pre-register. The Commission will consider all timely and responsive public comments, whether filed in paper or electronic form, and as a matter of discretion, we make every effort to remove home contact information for individuals from the public comments before posting them on the FTC website.

The FTC Act and other laws we administer permit the collection of your pre-registration contact information and the comments you file to consider and use in this proceeding as appropriate. For additional information, including routine uses permitted by the Privacy Act, see the Commission’s comprehensive Privacy Policy.

This event is open to the public and may be photographed, videotaped, webcast, or otherwise recorded. By participating in this event, you are agreeing that your image — and anything you say or submit — may be posted indefinitely at ftc.gov or on one of the Commission's publicly available social media sites.