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Chamber of Labor warns of “dark patterns” on the Internet

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Providers use a variety of tricks to manipulate customers.
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Registering an account with an online provider takes just two clicks, but canceling it requires filling out several questionnaires. The dream holiday offer is only available for the next 15 minutes, a countdown is running. These are just two examples of dark patterns, design forms and sales tactics in online retail that are intended to encourage customers to behave in a certain way.

A study by the Austrian Institute for Telecommunications (ÖIAT) commissioned by the Chamber of Labor (AK) shows how widespread these practices are. “Meanwhile, dark patterns are part of everyday life in online retail,” says study author Louise Beltzung. Dark patterns would cause consumers to share more data with a company, spend more money, or make decisions that are not in their best interests. The EU Commission is also concerned with the topic: a study commissioned by it shows that 97 percent of the most popular providers use at least one design trick.

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“The providers have an even greater advantage over the customer than before,” says AK consumer protection expert Daniela Zimmer. Forms of data evaluation and artificial intelligence are currently creating new opportunities to manipulate customers. “Mobile phones and language assistants provide the user with image and audio data so that emotions can be examined,” says Zimmer.

The online retailer Amazon, for example, has patented a function on its Echo devices that makes it possible to use voice recognition to recognize whether the user is ill. The user would then be offered cough sweets or recipes for chicken soup.

Chamber of Labor wants “digital fairness”

The current EU directives do not go far enough for the AK. It is therefore time for legal adjustments and a strengthening of consumer rights regarding the practice. According to Zimmer, one has to ask oneself how far digital marketing can go. Above all, the scope of the data collection for the use of personalized offers must be restricted. In addition, the interpretation and recognition of emotions and states of mind of consumers should be prohibited. “Providers should also consider digital fairness on their own initiative,” says Zimmer.

The AK has some tips to avoid the practices. Consumers shouldn’t be stressed out by “often fictitious” expiration dates for offers. Users should also ignore the build-up of emotional pressure (“Are you sure you don’t want to buy the product?”) as far as possible. If problems arise when canceling compulsory subscriptions or newsletters, those affected can contact the Internet ombudsman of the AK.

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