Photo credit: Junior Teixeira - Pexels

A new report by Dr Ann Kristin Glenster of the University of Cambridge calls for flexible regulation and better commercial incentives to protect consumers.

The proliferation of deceptive designs, tricking consumers for example by making it difficult to cancel services, has become a real problem. Regulatory intervention is urgently needed to protect consumers online.

At the Nobel Prize Summit 2023 in Washington D.C., the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge hosted a workshop together with the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD), and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

The workshop brought together legislators, regulators, policymakers, academics, and representatives from civil society to identify and explore possible solutions to the problems of deceptive design online.

This interim report presents the workshop’s findings.

Key findings:

– The elusive nature of deceptive design makes it hard to pin down for effective regulatory enforcement action. There is no universal definition of deceptive designs, which makes it hard to devise robust regulatory solutions. The distinction between deceptive design and acceptable persuasive marketing techniques adds further complications.

– There is a lack of commercial incentives for business not to use deceptive designs. Businesses reap great financial rewards from using deceptive design, yet there are very few tangible economic incentives for businesses to change their models.

– Deceptive designs contribute to the overall erosion of trust in the online digital ecosystem. Deceptive designs not only affect consumers directly, but also the trust individuals have in the online ecosystem more broadly. 

– The legal rules must be principle-based, technology neutral, and flexible Detailed rules could quickly become outdated, or be too narrow to be useful. Instead, rules should be principle-based, technology neutral, and flexible.

– Part of the solution can be found in an exchange of information between jurisdictions. Regulators and courts should share information about enforcement actions, strengthening practices across borders.