3 min read

Two U.S. Senators, namely  Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and Deb Fischer (R-NE), introduced a bill yesterday, to ban large online platforms ( with over 100 million monthly active users) such as Facebook and Twitter from tricking its consumers into handing over their personal data. The bill, named, the Deceptive Experiences To Online Users Reduction (DETOUR) Act, bipartisan legislation is aimed at prohibiting these platforms from using deceptive user interfaces, called, “dark patterns”.

The term “dark patterns” refers to online interfaces on websites and apps that are specially designed to manipulate users into taking actions they wouldn’t otherwise take under normal circumstances. The design tactics for these patterns are inspired by extensive behavioral psychology research and misleads the users on social media platforms into agreeing to settings and providing data that are advantageous to the company.

Forcing the users this way to give up their personal data (contacts, messages, web activity, location), these social media companies gain an unfair advantage over their competitors, which significantly benefits the company.

According to Senator Fischer, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, these dark patterns weaken the privacy policies that involve consent. “Misleading prompts to just click the ‘OK’ button can often transfer your contacts, messages, browsing activity, photos, or location information without you even realizing it. Our bipartisan legislation seeks to curb the use of these dishonest interfaces and increase trust online”.  

Other examples of dark patterns include a sudden interruption amidst a task repeating until the user agrees to consent and the use of privacy settings that push users to ‘agree’ as the default option. Also, users looking out for more privacy-related options are required to follow a long process that involves clicking through multiple screens. Moreover, sometimes users are not even provided with the alternative option.  

As per the DETOUR act:

  • A professional standards body, registered with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), needs to be created to focus on best practices surrounding user design for large online operators. This association would act as a self-regulatory body and provide updated guidance to the social media platforms.   
  • Segmenting consumers for behavioral experiments is prohibited unless carried out with a consumer’s informed consent. This includes routine disclosures by large online operators (at least once every 90 days) on any behavioral experiments to the public. Also, as per the bill, large online operators would have an internal Independent Review Board to offer oversight on these practices and safeguard consumer welfare.
  • User design intended for compulsive usage among children under the age of 13 years old is prohibited.
  • FTC needs to come out with rules within one year of its enactment and perform tasks necessary surrounding informed consent, Independent Review Boards, and Professional Standards Bodies.

Senator Warner has been raising concerns regarding the implications of dark patterns used by social media companies for several years. For instance, in 2014, Sen. Warner asked the FTC to probe into Facebook’s use of dark patterns in an experiment that involved nearly 700,000 users. The experiment focused on the emotional impact of manipulating information on Facebook’s News Feeds.

“We support Senators Warner and Fischer in protecting people from exploitive and deceptive practices online. Their legislation helps to achieve that goal and we look forward to working with them”, said Fred Humphries, Corporate VP of U.S. Government Affairs at Microsoft in a press release sent to us.

Apart from the DETOUR act,  Sen. Warner is planning to introduce further legislation that will be designed to further improve transparency, privacy, and accountability on social media.

Public reaction to the news has been largely positive, with people supporting the senators and new bill:

For more information, check out the official DETOUR act bill.

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Tech writer at the Packt Hub. Dreamer, book nerd, lover of scented candles, karaoke, and Gilmore Girls.