EU sweep shows dark patterns abound in online shops

Nearly 40% of web stores rely on manipulative practices to push customers into making choices against their own interests, according to the EU.

The bloc’s consumer protection authorities – plus Norway and Iceland – carried out the investigation. It focused on three specific manipulation tactics, also known as dark patterns.

Authorities looked for fake countdown timers, web interfaces designed to lead consumers to purchases, subscriptions, or other choices, and hidden information.

The sweep covered 399 online stores selling products from textiles to electronic goods and found 148 relied on at least one of these manipulation tactics.

The purpose of dark patterns is to “trick” consumers into making choices that may not be in their best interest and exploit their vulnerabilities, according to the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch.

“This behavior is clearly wrong and against consumer protection,” Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders said in a statement.

Hiding important information or making it less visible was the most common dark pattern used by online shops. In total, 70 were found to conceal information about cheaper options, delivery costs, or the composition of products.

Websites also rely on visual design and the choice of language to manipulate consumers into making certain choices, with 54 online shops found to use this tactic. Fake countdown timers with deadlines urging to purchase specific products were found on 42 websites.

The sweep also covered 102 apps of the websites screened and found that 27 used dark patterns.

Retailers that were found to use dark patterns would be ordered to rectify their websites and could face further consequences.

“I call on national authorities to make use of their enforcement capacities to take relevant action and fight these practices,” Didier said.

He added: “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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