Social Media

Senators to social media platforms: Stop tricking users

Image: Julia Tim / Shutterstock 

Senators Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) have introduced the Deceptive Experiences to Online Users Reduction (DETOUR) Act, a bill that would make it illegal for large online operators to design, modify or manipulate their user interface to subvert a user's decision making or ability to give informed consent about what the company can do with their data.

The bill would also ban experiments on users under 13 for the purposes of driving more compulsive engagement and place stricter limits on how these companies conduct real-time experiments, requiring informed consent for tactics like A/B testing.

"For years, social media platforms have been relying on all sorts of tricks and tools to convince users to hand over their personal data without really understanding what they are consenting to," said Warner in a statement, later adding "Our goal is simple: to instill a little transparency in what remains a very opaque market and ensure that consumers are able to make more informed choices about how and when to share their personal information."

The lawmakers rolled out the bill with statements of support from a number of companies and consumer rights organizations, including as the Electronic Privacy and Information Center, Common Sense, Microsoft, the Center for Humane Technology and Mozilla, the non-profit responsible for creating the Firefox web browser.

The bill's provisions would only apply to a handful of social media platforms: any online service that has more than 100 million authenticated users within a thirty-day period and subject to FTC jurisdiction.

"Maybe most straightforwardly it is squarely aimed at YouTube video autoplay for kids under 13," said Tom Lee, a Policy Lead for the mapping platform Mapbox on Twitter. "The act covers other compulsive-behavior-enabling patterns, but autoplay is specifically called out and the generous exemption [for companies with less than 100 million users] makes it clear who's being targeted."

For years, companies like Google (which owns YouTube) and Facebook have been criticized by tech and consumer rights groups for using so-called "dark patterns," a series of design tricks that confuse or push users into compulsive or addictive behavior or provide "consent" for platforms to take free reign over their data.

The website darkpatterns.org has a Hall of Shame dedicated to exposing the seemingly endless examples of companies leveraging such tactics, such as providing fake notifications to lure users back onto their websites, hiding settings options that limit the sharing of user data or making it overly difficult to cancel a paid subscription to a service.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.

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