Bulletins

The FTC zeroes in on fake countdown clocks and pre-checked boxes

In addition to a report on dark patterns, the commission made clear that gig companies shouldn't lie about how much money workers can earn.

The Amazon logo on a phone.

The FTC has been on a collision course with Amazon.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

The Federal Trade Commission on Thursday signaled rising concern with manipulative digital interfaces, including subscriptions that auto-renew without disclosure, countdown clocks that falsely suggest deals will go away if customers don't buy quickly and the steering of consumers toward privacy options that give "away the most personal information."


As part of its open meetings series, the FTC voted unanimously to make public a staff report on the concerns, which includes examples of what are often called dark patterns. While multiple commissioners said that some practices in the report might not violate the law, and the two Republicans on the FTC suggested they'd be uncomfortable with enforcement seeking to rein in certain practices cited, such research often signals the direction of future cases or rule-making. Democrats also hold the majority on the commission.

A 2021 FTC report on repair restrictions, for instance, was followed two months later by a formal statement on prioritizing the issue, which itself set the stage for several tech companies to open up repair options to some device owners. The dark patterns report also cited several past cases that included similar conduct. And two Democratic commissioners, Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Alvaro Bedoya, urged the public to send comments to the FTC as part of a separate agency effort examining the possibility of privacy rules on dark patterns that extend how long children and teens spend online.

Dark patterns are pervasive online, and more FTC interest in them could result in probes or action against an array of companies, including Amazon. The ecommerce giant's process for canceling Prime has come under criticism from consumer groups as being full of nudges and design features that make it difficult to complete, and it's under investigation by the FTC.

In addition, on Thursday the three Democratic commissioners voted to issue a policy statement about the gig economy, making clear the FTC would prioritize actions to rein in deceptive "claims to prospective gig workers about potential earnings" and costs. The statement also said there would be increased scrutiny of wage-fixing and the use of "artificial intelligence or other advanced technologies to govern workers’ pay, performance, and work assignments" if the "automated boss" was breaking promises.

As part of the open meeting, which allows for public comment, the FTC also heard from at least two DoorDash drivers who praised gig work and urged the commissioners not to come down too hard on the industry. In addition, commissioners referred again to Amazon, specifically its $62 million settlement over withholding tips from Flex drivers.

The FTC, which is led by longtime Amazon critic Lina Khan, has long been on a collision course with the company, with a years-long probe of the retailer's competitive practices still ongoing. Amazon has also gone on a buying spree that has attracted the attention of the FTC, which helps oversee merger law.

During the meeting, the commissioners also agreed unanimously to propose a rule that would make it easier to tackle fraudsters who impersonate representatives of legitimate businesses or government agencies.

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Bulletins