A fascinating Princeton study found hundreds of examples of deceptive “dark patterns” on e-commerce websites. Dark patterns are user interface features that, often deceptively, steer customers into making unintended decisions. The report has a great run-down of the various tricks that marketers are employing together with a list of various software vendors that enable this stuff.

The New York Times reports that legislators are looking at how to limit these types of approaches:

The report coincides with discussions among lawmakers about regulating technology companies, including through a bill proposed in April by Senators Deb Fischer, Republican of Nebraska, and Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, that is meant to limit the use of dark patterns by making some of the techniques illegal and giving the Federal Trade Commission more authority to police the practice. […] The legislation faces uncertain prospects, in part because of language defining dark patterns and the companies that would be subject to the new law that is ambiguous, said Woodrow Hartzog, a law and computer science professor at Northeastern University. “The important question as a policy matter is what separates a dark pattern from good old-fashioned advertising,” he said. “It’s a notoriously difficult line to find — what’s permissible persuasion vs wrongful manipulation.”

The report itself is worth giving 10 minutes of your times to read. Talking about the third-party software that enables many of these dark pattern practices:

Many of the third-parties advertised practices that appeared to be—and sometimes unambiguously were—manipulative: “[p]lay upon [customers’] fear of missing out by showing shoppers which products are creating a buzz on your website” (Fresh Relevance), “[c]reate a sense of urgency to boost conversions and speed up sales cycles with Price Alert Web Push” (Insider), “[t]ake advantageof impulse purchases or encourage visitors over shipping thresholds” (Qubit). Further, Qubit also advertised Social Proof Activity Notifications that could be tailored to users’ preferences and backgrounds. In some instances, we found that third parties openly advertised the deceptive capabilities of their products. For example, Boost dedicated a web page—titled “Fake it till you make it”—to describing how it could help create fake orders [12]. Woocommerce Notification—a Woocommerce platform plugin—also advertised that it could create fake social proof messages: “[t]he plugin will create fake orders of the selected products” [23]. Interestingly, certain third parties (Fomo, Proof, and Boost)used Social Proof Activity Messages on their own websites to promote their products. Finally, we also discovered that some of these deceptive practices resulted in e-commerce plat-forms taking action against third-party entities. For instance, Beeketing’s—the most popular third party provider in our data set—“Sales Pop” Shopify plugin was temporarily removed from Shopify in an effort to crack down on deceptive practices [65,73]. The plugin had allowed websites to create fake Activity Notifications by entering fabricated sales data