Amazon Allegedly Tricked Users Into Prime Subscriptions and Sabotaged Their Attempts to Cancel

Amazon Allegedly Tricked Users Into Prime Subscriptions and Sabotaged Their Attempts to Cancel

The Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against Amazon Wednesday, alleging the company “duped millions of consumers into unknowingly enrolling in Amazon Prime,” and used so-called dark patterns to sabotage attempts to cancel those subscriptions.

“Amazon tricked and trapped people into recurring subscriptions without their consent, not only frustrating users but also costing them significant money,” said FTC Chair Lina M. Khan, in a press release. “These manipulative tactics harm consumers and law-abiding businesses alike. The FTC will continue to vigorously protect Americans from ‘dark patterns’ and other unfair or deceptive practices in digital markets.”

According to the FTC’s complaint, Amazon executives made a conscious choice to create these problems and ignored potential fixes that would help consumers. Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As you work through the checkout process on Amazon, the company hits you with multiple opportunities to sign up for a recurring Prime subscription. The FTC says Amazon even used a purchase button that automatically triggered a Prime subscription without properly disclosing it to consumers.

Spurned consumers who realised they were unwittingly paying the $US14.99 a month prime subscription faced an uphill battle when they tried to cancel it, according to the suit. Leaked data showed that cancellations dropped 14% after Amazon intentionally complicated the process in 2017, according to a report in Insider. Internally, the company was obvious about its intentions, per the report. Amazon called its new anti-cancellation process “Project Iliad,” referencing the 24-book, 16,000 line Greek epic about the endless frustrations of the Trojan War.

Consumer advocates are celebrating the lawsuit. “Amazon should not be able to use its dominance to trap consumers into using and paying for its products,” said the Athena Coalition, a collective of advocacy groups that pushes back against Amazon, in a statement. “While the ability to subscribe and unsubscribe from Amazon Prime may seem inconsequential, when a monopoly like Amazon uses its coercive tactics to dupe working people, it limits our autonomy to make our own decisions. These tactics lock in Amazon’s stranglehold over online marketplaces, logistics and delivery, video streaming, and more, decimating local economies and foreclosing small business.”

This marks the FTC’s third action against Amazon in just three weeks. At the end of May Amazon agreed to a total of $US31 million in penalties for violating children’s privacy with its Alexa smart speakers and exposing Ring smart doorbell users videos to every employee at the company.

Experts use the term “dark patterns” to refer to deceptive web and app designs that trick people into making choices that benefit companies. The monumental effort required to cancel an Amazon Prime subscription is often used as a canonical example of the problem. Canceling Amazon Prime required you to work your way through a maze of hidden menus, ultimately learning that the only way to finish the job is a confrontation with a customer service agent who would attempt to convince you to change your mind.

The FTC is working to rewrite the rules of the internet for the modern age, correcting problems that consumers struggled with for decades. For years, legal experts assumed the government lacked the authority or the willpower to address the web’s worst abuses. But the FTC is taking up the fight for consumer rights with renewed vigor. With little help from Congress, regulators are adapting the few laws on the books to meet the needs of the modern age.

The complaint argues these problems violate the FTC Act and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act. Unlike the other recent Amazon cases, this lawsuit is going to court without a settlement. The complaint is heavily redacted, apparently because of Amazon’s arguments that the case might reveal trade secrets. The FTC has told the Court it “does not find the need for ongoing secrecy compelling.”

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