Dark patterns are top of mind for regulators on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, federal and state regulators are targeting dark patterns as part of both their privacy and traditional consumer protection remits. Meanwhile, the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) is conducting a consultation on proposed Guidelines (Guidelines) for assessing and avoiding dark pattern practices that violate the EU General Data Protection Directive (GDPR) in the context of social media platforms. In practice, the Guidelines are likely to have broader application to other types of digital platforms as well. Continue Reading “Dark Patterns” Are Focus of Regulatory Scrutiny in the United States and Europe

This month, CPW’s Kyle Fath, Kristin Bryan, Christina Lamoureux & Elizabeth Helpling explained how data privacy and cybersecurity were Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) priorities.  As they wrote, there were “three key areas of interest to consumer privacy that are now in the FTC’s spotlight, as well as their relation to state privacy legislation and their anticipated impact to civil litigation.”  One area of interest they identified was deceptive and manipulative conduct on the Internet (including so-called “dark patterns”).  Today, the FTC announced that it was going to ramp up enforcement against illegal dark patterns that trick consumers into subscriptions.  Read on to learn more and what it means going forward.

First, some background.  The term “dark patterns” collectively applies manipulative techniques that can impair consumer autonomy and create traps for online shoppers (for instance, think of multi-click unsubscription options).  As CPW previously explained, “[e]arlier this year, the FTC hosted a workshop called “Bringing Dark Patterns to Light,” and sought comments from experts and the public to evaluate how dark patterns impact customers.”  The genesis for this workshop was the FTC’s concern with harms caused by dark patterns, and how dark patterns may take advantage of certain groups of vulnerable consumers.

Notably, the FTC is not alone in its attention to this issue as California’s Attorney General previously announced regulations that banned dark patterns and required disclosure to consumers of the right to opt-out of the sale of personal information collected through online cookies.  Dark patterns has also been targeted in civil litigation.  This year, the weight-loss app Noom faced a class action alleging deceptive acts through Noom’s cancellation policy, automatic renewal schemes, and marketing to consumers.

Building off these prior developments, today, the FTC announced a new enforcement policy statement “warning companies against deploying illegal dark patterns that trick or trap consumers into subscription services.”  As the FTC cautioned, “[t]he agency is ramping up its enforcement in response to a rising number of complaints about the financial harms caused by deceptive sign up tactics, including unauthorized charges or ongoing billing that is impossible cancel.”

As summarized in the FTC’s press release announcing this development, businesses going forward must follow three key requirements in this area or run the risk of an enforcement action (including potential civil penalties):

  • (1) Disclose clearly and conspicuouslyall material terms of the product or service:  This includes disclosing how much a product and/or service costs, “deadlines by which the consumer must act to stop further charges, the amount and frequency of such charges, how to cancel, and information about the product or service itself that is needed to stop consumers from being deceived about the characteristics of the product or service.”
  • (2) Obtain the consumer’s express informed consent before charging them for a product or services: This means “obtaining the consumer’s acceptance of the negative option feature separately from other portions of the entire transaction, not including information that interferes with, detracts from, contradicts, or otherwise undermines the consumer’s ability to provide their express informed consent.”
  • (3) Provide easy and simple cancellation to the consumer: Marketers are also to “provide cancellation mechanisms that are at least as easy to use as the method the consumer used to buy the product or service in the first place.”

This development is likely one of only many anticipated to be rolled out in light of the FTC’s continued focus on data privacy and cybersecurity.  For more on this, stay tuned—CPW will be there to keep you in the loop.

As Rosa BarceloMatus HubaLucia Hartnett and Bethany Simmonds discuss in greater detail here, “[t]he European Data Protection Board (“EDPB”), a body with members from all EEA supervisory authorities (and the European Data Protection Supervisor), has recently established a taskforce to coordinate the response to complaints concerning compliance of cookie banners filed with several European Economic Area (“EEA”) Supervisory Authorities (“SAs”) by a non-profit organization NOYB. NOYB believes that many cookie banners, including those of ‘major’ companies, engage in “deceptive designs” and “dark patterns”.  The EDPB taskforce is established in accordance with Art. 70(1)(u) of the GDPR, which states that the EDBP must promote the cooperation and effective bilateral and multilateral exchange of information and best practices between SAs. The aim of this taskforce is to harmonize and coordinate the approach to investigating and responding to cookie banner complaints from NOYB. It remains to be seen how this will actually be done in practice and whether EDPB will limit the harmonization to procedural approach to the complaints, or whether it will also attempt to ensure consistent application of the underlying substantive rules.”

They provide a detailed analysis at the Security Privacy Bytes blog and comment that “the development of the taskforce could have a significant impact in streamlining the handling of the complaints it is set to investigate and could help companies better understand what is an acceptable pan-EU approach to cookie banners.”

The European Data Protection Board (“EDPB”), a body with members from all EEA supervisory authorities (and the European Data Protection Supervisor), has recently established a taskforce to coordinate the response to complaints concerning compliance of cookie banners filed with several European Economic Area (“EEA”) Supervisory Authorities (“SAs”) by a non-profit organisation NOYB. NOYB believes that many cookie banners, including those of ‘major’ companies, engage in “deceptive designs” and “dark patterns”. Continue Reading EDPB Establishes Cookie Banner Taskforce, Which Will Also Look Into Dark Patterns and Deceptive Designs

The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC” or “Agency”) recently indicated that it considers initiation of pre-rulemaking “under section 18 of the FTC Act to curb lax security practices, limit privacy abuses, and ensure that algorithmic decision-making does not result in unlawful discrimination.”  This follows a similar indication from Fall 2021 where the FTC had signaled its intention to begin pre-rulemaking activities on the same security, privacy, and AI topics in February 2022. This time, the FTC has expressly indicated that it will submit an Advanced Notice of Preliminary Rulemaking (“ANPRM”) in June with the associated public comment period to end in August, whereas it was silent on a specific timeline when it made its initial indication back in the Fall. We will continue to keep you updated on these FTC rulemaking developments on security, privacy, and AI.

Also, on June 16, 2022 the Agency issued a report to Congress (the “Report”), as directed by Congress in the 2021 Appropriations Act, regarding the use of artificial intelligence (“AI”) to combat online problems such as scams, deepfakes, and fake reviews, as well as other more serious harms, such as child sexual exploitation and incitement of violence. While the Report is specific in its purview—addressing the use of AI to combat online harms, as we discuss further below—the FTC also uses the Report as an opportunity to signal its positions on, and intentions as to, AI more broadly.

Background on Congress’s Request & the FTC’s Report

The Report was issued by the FTC at the request of Congress, which—through the 2021 Appropriations Act—had directed the FTC to study and report on whether and how AI may be used to identify, remove, or take any other appropriate action necessary to address a wide variety of specified “online harms.” The Report itself, while spending a significant amount of time addressing the prescribed online harms and offering recommendations regarding the use of AI to combat the same, as well as caveats for over-reliance on them, also devotes a significant amount of attention to signaling its thoughts on AI more broadly. In particular, due to specific concerns that have been raised by the FTC and other policymakers, thought leaders, consumer advocates, and others, the Report cautions that the use of AI should not necessarily be treated as a solution to the spread of harmful online content. Rather, recognizing that “misuse or over-reliance on [AI] tools can lead to poor results that can serve to cause more harm than they mitigate,” the Agency offers a number of safeguards. In so doing, the Agency raises concerns that, among other things, AI tools can be inaccurate, biased, and discriminatory by design, and can also incentivize relying on increasingly invasive forms of commercial surveillance, perhaps signaling what may be areas of focus in forthcoming rulemaking.

While the FTC’s discussion of these issues and other shortcomings focuses predominantly on the use of AI to combat online harms through policy initiatives developed by lawmakers, these areas of concern apply with equal force to the use of AI in the private sector. Thus, it is reasonable to posit that the FTC will focus its investigative and enforcement efforts on these same concerns in connection with the use of AI by companies that fall under the FTC’s jurisdiction. Companies employing AI technologies more broadly should pay attention to the Agency’s forthcoming rulemaking process to stay ahead of the issues.

The FTC’s Recommendations Regarding the Use of AI

Another major takeaway of the Report pertains to the series of “related considerations” that the FTC has cautioned will require the exercise of great care and focused attention when operating AI tools. Those considerations entail (among others) the following:

  • Human Intervention: Human intervention is still needed, and perhaps always will be, in connection with monitoring the use and decisions of AI tools intended to address harmful conduct.
  • Transparency: AI use must be meaningfully transparent, which includes the need for these tools to be explainable and contestable, especially when people’s rights are involved or when personal data is being collected or used.
  • Accountability: Intertwined with transparency, platforms and other organizations that rely on AI tools to clean up harmful content that their services have amplified must be accountable for both their data and practices and their results.
  • Data Scientist and Employer Responsibility for Inputs and Outputs: Data scientists and their employers who build AI tools—as well as the firms procuring and deploying them—must be responsible for both inputs and outputs. Appropriate documentation of datasets, models, and work undertaken to create these tools is important in this regard. Concern should also be given to the potential impact and actual outcomes, even though those designing the tools will not always know how they will ultimately be used. And privacy and security should always remain a priority focus, such as in their treatment of training data.

Of note, the Report identifies transparency and accountability as the most valuable direction in this area—at least as an initial step—as being able to view and allowing for research behind platforms’ opaque screens (in a manner that takes user privacy into account) may prove vital for determining the best courses for further public and private action, especially considering the difficulties created in crafting appropriate solutions when key aspects of the problems are obscured from view. The Report also highlights a 2020 public statement on this issue by Commissioners Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Christine Wilson, who remarked that “[i]t is alarming that we still know so little about companies that know so much about us” and that “[t]oo much about the industry remains opaque.”

In addition, Congress also instructed the FTC to recommend laws that could advance the use of AI to address online harms. The Report, however, finds that—given that major tech platforms and others are already using AI tools to address online harms—lawmakers should instead consider focusing on developing legal frameworks to ensure that AI tools do not cause additional harm.

Taken together, companies should expect the FTC to pay particularly close attention to these issues as they begin to take a more active approach in policing the use of AI.

FTC: Our Work on AI “Will Likely Deepen”

In addition to signaling what areas of focus may be moving forward when addressing Congress’ mandate, the FTC veered outside of its purview to highlight its recent AI-specific enforcement cases and initiatives, describe the enhancement of its AI-focused staffing, and provide commentary on its intentions as to AI moving forward. In one notable sound bite, the FTC notes in the Report that its “work has addressed AI repeatedly, and this work will likely deepen as AI’s presence continues to rise in commerce.” Moreover, the FTC specifically calls out its recent staffing enhancements as it relates to AI, highlighting the hiring of technologists and additional staff with expertise in and specifically devoted to the subject matter area.

The Report also highlights the FTC’s major AI-related initiatives to date, including:

Conclusion

The recent Report to Congress strongly indicates the FTC’s overall apprehension and distrust as it relates to the use of AI, which should serve as a warning to the private sector of the potential for greater federal regulation over the utilization of AI tools. That regulation may come sooner than later, especially in light of the Agency’s recent ANAPR signaling the FTC’s consideration of initiating rulemaking to “ensure that algorithmic decision-making does not result in unlawful discrimination.”

At the same time, although the FTC’s Report calls on lawmakers to consider developing legal frameworks to help ensure that the use of AI tools does not cause additional online harms, it is also likely that the FTC will increase its efforts in investigating and pursuing enforcement actions against improper AI practices more generally, especially as it relates to the Agency’s concerns regarding inaccuracy, bias, and discrimination.

Taken together, companies should consult with experienced AI counsel to obtain advice on proactive measures that can be implemented at this time to get ahead of the compliance curve and put themselves in the best position to mitigate legal risks moving forward—as it is only a matter of time before regulation governing the use of AI is enacted, likely sooner rather than later.

Legislatures, regulators, and enforcement agencies across the United States and in Germany have turned up the heat on subscription plans within the past year by updating their automatic renewal law (ARL). California and Germany have new ARL requirements starting July 1, 2022. Generally, an automatic renewal or negative option is a paid subscription plan that automatically renews at the end of the term for a subsequent term, until the subscribing consumer cancels. Many US states and the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) require businesses offering subscription plans to obtain from the consumer affirmative consent to subscription plan terms, send confirmation emails with the subscription terms, send renewal notices within a set number of days prior to the plan automatically renewing, and allow consumers to easily cancel their subscriptions, among other requirements. The FTC’s enforcement power for automatic renewals rests in several laws and rules, such as Section 5 of the FTC Act, the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (ROSCA), and the Telemarketing Sales Rule. Although most state ARLs target business-to-consumer contracts, some states have ARLs that regulate business-to-business contracts (e.g., New York and Wisconsin). We take a look at the varying requirements of the more stringent state ARLs regulating business-to-consumer contract below. New or updated ARLs have taken effect in Colorado, Delaware, New York, and Illinois. Notably, California’s new, more stringent requirements for businesses that offer consumers automatic renewals take effect July 1, 2022.

In Europe, the EU has had several Directives relating to consumer contracts, including the Unfair Contract Terms Directive, Consumer Rights Directive, and most recently, the Digital Content Directive and Sale of Goods Directive. However, in addition to these Directives, Germany passed the Fair Consumer Contracts Act, which will place stricter regulations on automatic renewals in e-commerce. An important new practical requirement is the cancellation button, the design of which is subject to detailed requirements. Non-compliant businesses will be subject to injunctive relief from both competitors and from consumer protection associations. Further, consumers can cancel contracts at any time if the business is non-compliant. Some of the provisions of the Fair Consumer Contracts Act entered into force on October 1, 2021, however, the implementation of the cancellation button is mandatory July 1, 2022, the same effective date as California’s updated ARL.

Updates to Laws

United States

Last year, New York strengthened its business-to-consumer ARL to include additional consent, disclosure, and cancellation requirements. In addition to this updated business-to-consumer ARL, New York’s original ARL covers business-to-business contracts “for service, maintenance or repair to or for any real or personal property” where the renewal period is longer than a month. New York’s enhanced ARL, which went into effect in 2021, has some notable new requirements for businesses that we have seen in other state consumer protection laws, including omnibus privacy laws:

  1. Obtain “affirmative consent” to the terms, including the cancellation policy, (which are clearly and conspicuously disclosed in “visual” or “temporal” proximity to the consent mechanism) prior to charging a consumer for an automatic renewal. Failure to obtain this consent will deem the “goods, wares, merchandise, or products” as “unconditional gifts to the consumer, who may dispose of the [gift] in any manner he or she sees fit without any obligation whatsoever on the consumer’s part to the business.” §527-a(6).
  2. “Clear[ly] and conspicuous[ly]” disclose the “terms, cancellation policy, and information regarding how to cancel in a manner that is capable of being retained by the consumer.” §527-a(1)(c). Think of this as a requirement to send a confirmation email or letter to the subscribing consumer. If the subscription includes a free gift, the business should provide the ability and include instructions in the confirmation for the consumer to cancel before being charged for the good or service.
  3. Allow cancellation online of subscriptions purchased online, as well as “cost-effective, timely, and easy-to-use mechanism for cancellation” for subscriptions not purchased online. §527-a(2)-(3).

Indicating that automatic renewals are an enforcement priority, New York Attorney General Letitia James issued a consumer alert in November 2021, reminding consumers and businesses that New York has updated its ARL for business-to-consumer contracts.

In October 2021, the FTC issued an enforcement policy statement “warning companies against deploying illegal dark patterns that trick or trap consumers into subscription services.” The enforcement policy states that sellers should obtain a consumer’s unambiguous affirmative consent for the automatic renewal. You can read our other coverage of dark patterns here.

Also in October 2021, California enacted its enhanced ARL that has an operative date of July 1, 2022. In the enhanced ARL, California has required additional consent, disclosure, and cancellation requirements on businesses that offer automatic renewals. Notably, California’s ARL will soon require:

  1. Businesses must provide a notice (i.e. an email or letter to the consumer stating that the automatic renewal will automatically renew) that clearly and conspicuously discloses (a) the renewal will occur “unless the consumer cancels,” (b) the length of the additional term, (c) how the consumer may cancel, (d) if sent electronically, a link that directs the consumer to the cancellation process or another electronic method to cancel, and (e) the contact information for the business. §17602(a)(4).
  2. Notice timing.
    1. Notice must be provided 3 to 21 days before the expiration of a free gift or trial period lasting more than 31 days. §17602(b)(1).
    2. Notice must be provided 15 to 45 days prior to the renewal for automatic renewals with subscriptions one year or longer, under certain conditions. §17602(b)(2).
  3. Easy-to-use cancellation. Consumers subscribing online, must be allowed to cancel online, “at will, and without engaging in any further steps that obstruct or delay the consumer’s ability to terminate” the subscription immediately. Businesses shall provide (a) “a prominently located direct link or button” located in the account profile, or device or user settings; (b) a preformatted termination email that the “consumer can send to the business without additional information.” §17602(d)(1). Businesses can require account authentication prior to cancelling the account online, but consumers can still cancel through the other methods outlined elsewhere in California’s ARL.

Many other states and Washington, D.C. have similar consent, disclosure, and cancellation requirements in their existing or recently updated automatic renewal laws. For instance, Colorado’s ARL became effective January 1, 2022, and requires notices be sent to consumers 25 to 45 days prior to the “first automatic renewal that would extend the contract beyond a continuous twelve-month period,” as well as any subsequent renewal that would extend the contract past the additional twelve-month period. Delaware also enacted an ARL which has specific notice and disclosure requirements. Illinois’ enhanced ARL, which became effective January 1, 2022, now includes a requirement for cancellation instructions and mechanisms in the renewal notice, and requires an online cancellation option for consumers that subscribe online.

Germany

With the passage of the Fair Consumer Contracts Act (Gesetz für faire Verbraucherverträge), the German Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch – “BGB”) was amended to include stricter rules on tacit contract renewals (automatic renewals) for certain businesses. Sect. 309 No. 9 lit. b BGB. Notably, as of July 1, 2022, businesses offering subscriptions must provide a cancellation button on their websites. There are specific requirements including:

  • The button must be legibly labeled a phrase like “Cancel contract here.”
  • The button must lead the consumer to a confirmation page that meets specific requirements, such as allowing the consumer to provide identifying information, cancellation reason, and subscription end date.
  • The button and confirmation page must be permanently available, and immediately and easily accessible (i.e., clear and conspicuous).
  • The business must allow the consumer to document the request for termination (e.g., by means of a downloadable summary of the data and time the cancellation button was pressed) and provide the consumer with an electronic receipt of the request, including the date of the cancellation request and the date on which the subscription is to be cancelled.
  • If the consumer does not specify a time for cancellation, the termination date must be the earliest date possible.

If a business fails to follow these cancellation requirements, a German consumer may terminate a contract at any time and without observing a notice period.

Enforcement and Class Action Threat

Violations of automatic renewal laws are typically addressed by government enforcement actions. However, there have been a number of large class action settlements over the past few years that alleged illegal automatic renewal programs in newspaper and magazine subscription programs. Recently, a lawsuit alleging violations of state consumer protection laws, as well as California’s ARL, based on a wellness company’s deceptive trial periods and consumers’ difficulty in cancelling and getting a refund, settled for over $50m.  Although this class action alleged a violation of California’s ARL, several courts have found there is no independent private right of action in the California ARL. See Johnson v. Pluralsight, LLC, 728 F. App’x 674, 676 (9th Cir. 2018); Lopez v. YP Holdings, LLC, 2019 WL 7905748, *4 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 23, 2019); Mayron v. Google LLC, No. H044592, 2020 WL 5494245 (Cal. Ct. App. Sept. 11, 2020). Private litigants may attempt to bring automatic renewal lawsuits under different consumer protection statutes, such as California’s Unfair Competition Law. See Morrell v. WW Int’l, Inc., 551 F. Supp. 3d 173, 182 (2nd Cir. 2021).

As to state government enforcement, the state attorney general usually enforces the ARL. In California, the state Attorney General, District Attorneys, County Attorneys, City Prosecutors, and City Attorneys can enforce the state’s ARL. But as noted above, private litigants may still try to bring an ARL claim under another consumer protection statute, such as a law prohibiting unfair or deceptive trade practices. Some states explicitly allow private rights of action in their ARL (e.g., Virginia).

The ramification for failing to comply with the state ARL varies by state. States, such as New York and Connecticut, have clauses in their ARLs that proscribe failure to comply with certain requirements means that the good or service is an unconditional gift, which would prevent the non-complying business from collecting from the consumer for non-payment. Florida, for example, states that a violation of the ARL “renders the automatic renewal provision void and unenforceable.”

In addition to state enforcement, it is likely that the FTC will be looking more closely at automatic renewal programs in 2022 based on the October 2021 enforcement statement. For example, on March 8, 2022, the FTC announced a settlement with an online investment site for more than $2.4m based on allegations of bogus stock earnings claims and hard-to-cancel subscription plans, in violation of Section 5(a) of the FTC Act and Section 4 of ROSCA. The FTC’s press release notes that the settlement “continues the FTC’s crackdown on false earnings claims, returning millions to consumers and requiring click-to-cancel online subscriptions” signaling that more enforcement actions may be on the horizon and online cancellation is an FTC requirement for online subscriptions.

Recommendations

The consent, disclosure, and cancellation requirements vary by state and businesses should be vigilant in complying with the state specific requirements. Businesses that offer subscription plans should ensure that customers are notified of the automatic renewal provision prior to beginning the transaction. Businesses should obtain a subscribing customer’s affirmative consent to the automatic renewal provision and send the subscriber a descriptive confirmation email after the initial purchase. Consumers should also receive a renewal notice prior to the subscription automatically renewing. Finally, businesses must be cautious of the difference between clever marketing and dark patterns in the subscription process.

These enhanced ARL requirements are already the law in certain states, and will soon be required of businesses selling automatic renewals to Californians. Businesses should implement the best practices outlined above as soon as possible, and prior to July 1, 2022, if subject to California’s law.

In Germany, we recommend that businesses review their subscription terms and conditions to ensure that no stipulations can be construed to bar consumers from using the cancellation button, and ensure that the cancellation flow complies with Germany’s specific requirements, prior to July 1, 2022.

For more information, please contact the authors or your usual point of contact at Squire Patton Boggs.

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