Dark patterns

The FTC is cracking down

The stars are aligned when The Fourth of July falls on a Tuesday. Hope you all enjoy a long holiday weekend. I will skip publishing on Tuesday and be back refreshed on Thursday. First up, a message from The Rebooting’s partner, Nativo.

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Dark patterns

Dark patterns aren’t new exactly. We are hardwired to manipulation. The commanding heights of the digital economy are in interfaces. The line is fuzzy between interface design that incentivizes preferred behaviors and “dark patterns” that manipulate and deceive.

The Federal Trade Commission apparently has seen enough. Last September it signaled a move against dark patterns with a research report that aimed to show “ how companies are increasingly using sophisticated design practices known as “dark patterns” that can trick or manipulate consumers into buying products or services or giving up their privacy.” The FTC goes on to name such horrors as disguising ads to look like independent content, making it difficult for consumers to cancel subscriptions or charges, burying key terms or junk fees, and tricking consumers into sharing their data.” This sounds like just another day in the media business.

And the war on dark patterns will continue because, well, it’s a political winner. Nobody likes to be ripped off, or at least feel that way. And politicians, like publishers, respond to incentives.

These reports typically are followed by enforcement actions, and the FTC took a pair of actions this week, first with an $18.5 million settlement with Publishers Clearing House, one of the OG dark pattern mongers – and, as Troy Young pointed out in our latest episode of People vs Algorithms, a key “agent” for magazine publishers who relied on all kinds of rackets to build their rate base. Perhaps more interesting is where the FTC went next, accusing Amazon of deceiving customers into subscribing to Amazon Prime, a membership program that has 160 million members in the US alone.

“Amazon tricked and trapped people into recurring subscriptions without their consent, not only frustrating users but also costing them significant money," FTC Chair Lina Khan said in a statement.

Now do call to cancel. Tech is not the only industry that often relies on sleight of hand in its design and business processes.

As was said to me last week, the media industry might collapse without dark patterns. Even banning auto renew would lead to carnage in its wake, as most subscription programs at media companies are premised on cut-rate intro offers that auto renew at drastically higher prices.

The reliance on dark patterns is to my mind part of a larger issue of adversarial business models that have proliferated in the media industry, often seeming like a game to get away with what you can before people revolt, or as I like to think of it as: the mayo game. As much as companies complain about regulations, they often cannot help themselves to push the envelope as far as possible, particularly in a competitive and difficult industry.

Regulation aside, new tools are arising to allow people to circumvent dark patterns altogether and leave the companies reliant on them standing on an increasingly shrinking ice floe, with unearned advantages chipped away. The answer, as always, is you’re going to have to fight every day.


There’s money in B2B media: It’s just not in generalist media, particularly news. Aging Media, a B2B media company covering senior care and housing, was bought by WTWH Media. Congrats to John and George Yedniak, who bootstrapped Aging Media from its inception in 2011. (Business Wire)

Here come the lawyers: ChatGPT maker OpenAI is about to find out. It is facing the first of many lawsuits, this one a class action case over its scraping of information on copyright and privacy grounds. Raise $11.3 billion, and you’ll find your lawyers will be busy. (WaPo)

The measurement myth: The internet always pooh-poohed the shoddy measurement and targeting of legacy media like TV, only as time has gone on, the more it has become clear that the supposed precision of digital advertising isn’t that precise – and often not because of tech limitations but because of business incentives. (WSJ)

Credit to Microsoft for this ad placement

Maybe the second half will be better: Nobody hit their numbers in Q1 and most missed in Q2. The hopes for the back half of the year are dimming at many publishers. Playwire has the data to back up publishing’s rough adjustment to a post-ZIRP reality. (Playwire)

The Great Disorder: Financier/public intellectual Ray Dalio sees unrest ahead and “those who assume that things will work in the orderly ways we have gotten used in the last few decades will be shocked and probably hurt by the changes to come.” (Time)

The AI freakout: VC/public intellectual Marc Andreessen seems to come in waves. He’s out with a new essay that, shocker, defends AI as a world-changing technology that should plow ahead because the precautionary principle tends to be wrong. Without irony, Andreessen warns against “very smart people who are taken very seriously in one field decide to branch out and decide to become experts on society and politics and decide to weigh in on the future shape of society, and basically it turns out they’re just horribly bad, they just have catastrophic judgment once they’re outside of their core discipline.” (Stratechery)

The Creator bubble: Like all manias, particularly those whipped up with VC money, the creator economy has hit a wall. This was very predictable, as power laws are, well, laws, and the middle class in most creator sectors isn’t possible. (Evan Armstrong)

Gen X is the true greatest generation: “We are older than Google, we mind our own business, we are not the bigger person. Leave us alone.” (DJScribble)

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