Friday, June 23, 2023

Amazon Prime Dark Patterns Lawsuit

Annie Palmer (via Hacker News):

The Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday sued Amazon, alleging the nation’s dominant online retailer intentionally duped millions of consumers into signing up for its mainstay Prime program and “sabotaged” their attempts to cancel.

The agency claims Amazon violated the FTC Act and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act by using so-called dark patterns, or deceptive design tactics meant to steer users toward a specific choice, to push consumers to enroll in Prime without their consent.

The complaint is here.


I worked on Prime for a long time many years ago, and it’s sad that dark patterns have taken over. We built a lot of behind the scenes stuff to automate self-service free and pro-rated refunds during cancellation (if you didn’t use any benefits you’d get a full refund, a few benefits got you a prorated refund, and if you used it a bunch already, we’d turn off auto-renew and let the contract run to the end). If you signed up and didn’t use any benefits, you wouldn’t be auto-renewed. The group was extremely customer centric.

We also had metrics around delivery times, which seems to have gone out the window as well.


Amazon Prime video recently dropped the “show me what’s free to me” link. Now they show tons of options that are free with ads, free with trial subscription, etc.


Update (2023-06-26): Ben Thompson:

This, to my mind, is the chief reason why this complaint rubs me the wrong way: even if there is validity to the FTC’s complaints (more on this in a moment), the overall thrust of the Prime value proposition seems overwhelmingly positive for consumers; surely there are plenty of other products and subscriptions that aren’t just bad for consumers on the edges but also in their overall value proposition and reason for existing.


Are these UI decisions that are designed to make subscribing to Prime very easy? Yes, and that is a generous way to put it, to say the least! At the same time, you can be less than generous in your critique, as well. The last image, for example, complains that Amazon is lying because the customer already qualifies for free shipping, while ignoring that the free shipping on offer from Prime arrives three days earlier! That seems like a meaningful distinction.


At the risk of once again over-indexing on forum behavior, it was striking that no one seemed to have saved-up screenshots about the cancellation process, perhaps because few Prime members seem to want to go through with it. Moreover, the FTC complaint doesn’t seem that egregious?

Update (2023-06-27): John Gruber (Mastodon):

I find the FTC’s case against Amazon to be weak sauce at best, and bordering on frivolous. Their argument that Amazon has made it difficult to cancel a Prime subscription is just wrong. Yes, it’s a few more clicks than it takes to sign up for Prime, but I don’t think any of those steps are arduous or unnecessary or unfair or confusing. And in the context of Amazon’s entire website — infamously sprawling — it’s really rather easy to find.

The FTC might have a better case that Amazon has used deceptive dark patterns to get people to sign up for Prime, but I don’t find their case compelling.


So, anyone who doesn’t think there’s merit here simply… has not gone through cancelling Prime! The cancellation process gets more laughable each time (I cancel once or twice a year, I have a lot of experience with it). Not only do they chain you through several screens where the “right” button flips position and color, to ensure you are careful reading each screen, where any deviation exits the cancellation flow… but some of the features were outright broken… for years!

There’s a feature on the Prime page to notify you by email before your next renewal. Quite useful if you’re say, using a Prime trial and want to cancel before it bills.

For over two years, that button did nothing. They’d tell you they’d remind you before renewal, but if you didn’t set your own reminder, you were out of luck, because the feature just didn’t work.

And that’s before we get to how they handle fraudulent Prime subscriptions… They won’t cancel them!


For a period, Amazon randomly added a Prime trial to your basket when you were ordering goods for the “free” shipping without asking. The process for unsubscribing is onerous and misleading to say the least. How can it be reasonable to have to navigate 7 screens to cancel a trial or subscription? Add dark patterns into this and it’s downright deceptive.

Adam Fisher-Cox:

You have to go through multiple steps, each one differently designed, where you have to confirm you actually want to cancel. On some of the steps, all the buttons look the same, but some cancel and some do not. All are labeled close-reading tests like “No, don’t end my free shipping benefits” or “Yes, please cancel my cancellation.” The idea that this isn’t a dark pattern is mind-boggling.

Nick Heer:

The complaint of the user who posted the image is that Amazon has preselected a paid shipping option when a free option is available, knowing that it would take longer for the item to arrive than either the preselected paid shipping option or the fastest Prime choice, and that Amazon presents a Prime subscription as a way to “save $5.99 on eligible items in this order”. A more honest screen would preselect free shipping and explain how subscribing to Prime would arrive sooner.


It is certainly not the worst cancellation process. However, it is worth pointing out the project which created this multistep process was internally referred to as “Iliad”, suggesting its arduous qualities were very much the point.


The FTC’s allegations echo 2021 complaints from the Norwegian Consumer Council. Last year, Amazon said it would change its cancellation process in Europe to one which takes just two steps and is clearly labelled. It is fair to argue that its current U.S. process is not that difficult, but it is obviously inferior to the E.U. version. Thompson protests the involvement of “government regulators getting involved in product design on a philosophical level”, but it was that kind of pressure which produced changes in both the U.S. and the E.U. resulting in better designed products for users.


Thompson here is defending the use of checkout and cancellation flows designed to trick people which are apparently necessary in order to make same-day shipping possible. […] If the way Amazon runs its online marketplace can only be maintained by coercing users into registering for Prime and making it hard for them to stop paying — and dangerous and low-paid labour — that seems like a profound argument against the way Amazon works today, not in favour of it. It indicates a company which is deceptive to its core.

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