Amazon Prime too easy to join, too hard to quit, says FTC lawsuit

Dark patterns at Amazon worthy of a Homeric epic? Surely not!

Updated The Federal Trade Commission today filed a lawsuit against Amazon for what it describes as a "years-long effort to enroll consumers into its Prime program without their consent while knowingly making it difficult for consumers to cancel their subscriptions."

In a highly redacted complaint [PDF] filed today in the Western US District Court for Washington state, The FTC accused Amazon of using so-called "dark patterns," manipulative user interfaces that trick consumers into spending money, to fool consumers into enrolling in Amazon Prime. 

The FTC also accused Amazon of building a Prime cancellation process designed not to help users cancel their membership, but to stop them.

"These manipulative tactics harm consumers and law-abiding businesses alike. The FTC will continue to vigorously protect Americans from 'dark patterns' and other unfair or deceptive practices in digital markets," FTC chair Lina Khan said of the suit.

UK previously cracked down on UX

Reading through the portions of the case that aren't redacted, it becomes pretty clear how similar the FTC's argument is to a 2019 decision from the UK Advertising Standards Authority That similarly found Amazon had used some UI black magic to confuse users into signing up for Prime.

The ASA decided Amazon should be forced to change its UI to clarify purchase options that did and did not include a Prime membership, but no such decision has been handed down by the FTC yet, as the case was just filed today.

Still, the FTC makes similar complaints about the sign-up process, specifically that buttons on Amazon for buying products don't make it clear which option adds a Prime membership and associated recurring payment.

While that's bad enough, the FTC goes full Greek epic on Amazon's Prime cancellation flow, which it refers to as the "Iliad flow" in reference to the 16,000 line Greek poem of the same name and its associated length and complexity. Iliad is also reportedly the internal code name of the long, complicated process at Amazon developed to prevent Prime cancellations, which the FTC alleges was done at the behest of Amazon leadership who wished to keep the Prime cash flowing.

"Amazon tricked and trapped people into recurring subscriptions without their consent, not only frustrating users but also costing them significant money," Khan claimed. 

According to the suit, The Iliad flow required customers to "navigate a four-page, six-click, fifteen-option cancellation process," in contrast to the one or two click process for getting sucked into the Prime vortex.

The FTC further alleges that the Iliad flow was made difficult to locate, as even getting into the Prime cancellation process required substantial navigation through Amazon's account pages. Amazon also made it impossible for Prime customers to cancel Prime through applications on its Fire Stick and Fire TV, despite both giving consumers the option to enroll in Prime.

"Amazon did not design the Iliad Flow to be simple or easy for consumers.  The Iliad Flow inhibits or prevents many consumers who intend to cancel from cancelling their membership," the FTC said in its complaint. 

The FTC is accusing Amazon of being well aware that what it was doing was less than legal, as it "launched the Iliad Flow in 2016, and did not substantially change it in the United States until in or about April 2023," shortly before this case was filed. Amazon "failed to take any meaningful steps to address the issues until they were aware of the FTC investigation," the FTC went on to claim. 

The Commission charged Amazon with one count of violating the Federal Trade Commission Act by unfairly charging consumers without their consent, as well as four violations of the Restore Online Shoppers Confidence Act, or ROSCA, which was passed in 2010 with the intent to eliminate dark patterns and misleading ecommerce interfaces. Amazon is being accused of three ROSCA violations: Non-consensual enrollment, failure to provide a simple cancellation and inadequate disclosure. 

The FTC is asking for similar injunctive relief as ordered by the ASA in 2019, with the commission asking for a permanent injunction barring Amazon from the use of the Iliad flow and other dark patterns, as well as monetary and civil relief. A court date has not been set. ®

Updated to add on June 22

Amazon has been in touch to tell us:

The FTC’s claims are false on the facts and the law. The truth is that customers love Prime, and by design we make it clear and simple for customers to both sign up for or cancel their Prime membership. As with all our products and services, we continually listen to customer feedback and look for ways to improve the customer experience, and we look forward to the facts becoming clear as this case plays out.

We also find it concerning that the FTC announced this lawsuit without notice to us, in the midst of our discussions with FTC staff members to ensure they understand the facts, context, and legal issues, and before we were able to have a dialog with the commissioners themselves before they filed a lawsuit.

While the absence of that normal course engagement is extremely disappointing, we look forward to proving our case in court.

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