‘Chances are you’ve seen a dark pattern online’: Sen. Warner seeks ban on deceptive internet marketing

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When he goes online, Sen. Mark Warner gets particularly bugged when he’d like to download something but can’t tell which of several links scattered among the advertisements is one he wants, rather than one that sticks him with a marketing link.

That’s just one variety of a so-called “dark pattern,” an online interface that aims to trick people into doing something they don’t really want to do — and Warner wants to make them illegal.

He’s leading a push in the Senate and House of Representatives to bar online companies to create interfaces that obscure, subvert or impair users’ decision-making or choice in giving consent to access their data.

The “DETOUR” bill (for Deceptive Experiences to Online Users Reduction) also would bar online features that encourage compulsive usage by children and says online firms may not conduct behavioral experiments without a consumer’s consent.

“Chances are you’ve seen a dark pattern online — a deceptive internet mechanism used to trap you into clicking, buying, or signing up for something you don’t want,” Warner said.

“A lot of these dark patterns are merely annoying, but some contain darker implications, like these checkboxes that obscure important privacy permissions,” he said. “I think you shouldn’t have to struggle to see what data you’re giving away.”

Warner said the bill will bring more transparency to an online world that can be deceptive, while protecting children from online addictions. It will hold big tech firms accountable, he said.

Imran Ahmed, the CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said the bill provides important protections for people when online.

“Social media companies often trick users into giving up their personal data — everything from their thoughts and fears to their likes and dislikes — which they then sell to advertisers. These practices are designed to exploit people; not to serve them better,” he said.

Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, a nonprofit aiming to rein in online addictions in children said the act “is an important step towards curbing Big Tech’s unfair design choices that manipulate users into acting against their own interests.”

Sens. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; and John Thune, R.-S.D., joined Warner in sponsoring the bill. Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D.-Del., and Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, sponsored a companion bill in the House.

Dave Ress, 757-247-4535, dress@dailypress.com