India warns ecommerce 'basket sneaks' and 'confirm shamers' their days are numbered

Amazon, Google, and Meta helped it to draft guidelines on preventing 'dark patterns'

The Indian government has commenced a consultation on how to regulate – and possibly prohibit – tricky tactics called "dark patterns" designed to fool consumers as they transact online.

The nation's Department of Consumer Affairs yesterday delivered a draft guidelines [PDF] for regulation of "deceptive design patterns using UI/UX (user interface/user experience) interactions on any platform; designed to mislead or trick users to do something they originally did not intend or want to do."

Google, Amazon, and Facebook consulted on the draft guidelines, along with local e-commerce players Flipkart, RIL, Swiggy, Zomato, Ola, and Tata. All appear to have agreed that dark patterns should be prohibited, and have defined ten practices they think should be out of bounds, namely:

  • False urgency – falsely stating or implying the sense of urgency or scarcity to mislead a user into making an immediate purchase or take an immediate action, which may lead to a purchase;
  • Basket sneaking – adding extra items, including charitable donations, to a virtual shopping basket before checkout;
  • Confirm shaming – efforts to create a sense of fear or shame or ridicule or guilt in the mind of the user, to nudge them to buy a product or continue a subscription. The document offers the example a message stating "I will stay unsecured" in response to declining to buy insurance as an example of confirm shaming;
  • Forced action – requiring purchase of extra products or services as a condition of buying a user's desired purchase;
  • Subscription trap – making cancellation of subscriptions impossible or a complex and lengthy process;
  • Interface interference – design elements that highlight, or obscure, certain information to misdirect users;
  • Bait and switch – advertising a particular outcome based on the user's action but deceptively serving an alternate outcome;
  • Drip pricing – not revealing the full price, then adding to it as the purchase process proceeds;
  • Disguised ads – ads disguised as user generated content, news articles, or fake ads;
  • Nagging – overloading users with options or offers to disrupt a transaction.

India is not alone in cracking down on dark patterns. The EU's Digital Market Act includes a ban on the same sneaky tricks. Some US states, including California, have done likewise.

India's proposed ban will therefore not be unusual in a global context. But it will have the added weight of having been developed in consultation with global giants like Amazon and Google. And if those companies can stop using dark patterns in the world's most populous nation, with its 22 official languages, excuses for letting them appear elsewhere will be harder to find. ®

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