The Federal Trade Commission’s recent proposal to require that companies offer customers easy one-click options to cancel subscriptions might seem like a no-brainer, something unequivocally good for consumers. Not according to the companies it would affect, though. In their view, the introduction of simple unsubscribe buttons could lead to a wave of accidental cancellations by dumb customers. Best, they say, to let big businesses protect customers from themselves and make it a torment to stop your service.
Those were some of the points shared by groups representing major publishers and advertisers during the FTC’s recent public comment period ending in June. Consumers, according to the Wall Street Journal, generally appeared eager for the new proposals which supporters say could make a dent in tricky, bordering-on deceptive anti-cancellation tactics deployed by cable companies, entertainment sites, gyms, and other businesses who game out ways to make it as difficult as possible to quickly quit a subscription. The News/Media Alliance, a trade group representing publishers, tried to refute those customers in its own comments to the FTC. The Alliance claimed its members actually receive “very few complaints” about cancellations. Consumers, according to the Association of National Advertisers, may actually benefit from annoying cancellation friction.
“If sellers are required to enable cancellation through a single click or action by the consumer, accidental cancellations will become much more common, as consumers will not reasonably expect to remove their recurring goods or services with just one click,” the Association said in a statement.
In other words, cumbersome, laborious clicks and logins to quit a service are actually there to protect you. If those extra “are you sure you want to unsubscribe” alerts did not pop up, or if customers weren’t forced to travel in person to the gym to quit, short-sighted, lizard-brained users might accidentally miss out on a new deal, or a promotion, the companies said. A video game trade group called the Entertainment Software Association also sent a comment critical of the FTC proposals, arguing it could interfere with its ability to suggest recurring payment in the middle of gameplay.
“These methods are both reasonable and simple cancellation pathways that are designed to be effective and reduce customer frustration, but appear to be prohibited under this new requirement because they are not symmetrical to the sign-up experience,” the company said.
The News/Media Alliance and the Entertainment Software Association did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s requests for comment.
The Association of National Advertisers shared its full set of comments it sent to the FTC, which provided more details on its opposition to elements of the FTC’s program, which it describes as “simultaneously vague and overly prescriptive.”
“Requiring ‘simple’ cancellation is a difficult standard for businesses to implement, as there is little detail provided to guide them to understand its meaning and how to comply with this ambiguous requirement,” the ANA wrote in its comment.
Customers are airing out their frustrations in FTC comments
The trade groups’ view of the landscape appears divorced from the day-to-day realities of many consumers. A recent study by ConsumerAffairs found hundreds of one-star reviews online for a wide variety of businesses, from dating site eHarmony to Adobe, all featuring blistering statements from customers complaining about difficulty unsubscribing. The overwhelming majority of comments on the FTC’s public comment page read page included horror stories of users desperately trying, sometimes for months, to cancel unwanted subscriptions. Here are just two examples.
“Yes some companies make it a 3 step process and others have very sneaky ways to scam you into memberships by offering you a great deal on some products but my biggest huge issue is with robo or spoof cell phone calls and text,” one commenter wrote.
“A very few are straight forward one ‘click’ to unsubscribe. Some make you jump through hoops to get to the ‘unsubscribe’ link. I have had to input my email address in several, then check off different boxes to unsubscribe. I think I get more spam after ‘unsubscribing’ on some links. It’s NEVER easy”.
Stonewalling tactics by companies aren’t particularly new, but the massive increase in online subscriptions regularly consumers have signed up for in recent years makes the problem feel far more pervasive. In 2020, according to Statista data shared with CNBC, the average Millennial had 17 different media and entertainment subscriptions. A separate survey of US adults conducted by Chase Bank determined 71% of Americans waste at least $US50 per month on unwanted subscription fees.
That rise in subscription services and shitty cancellation experiences is part of the reason why FTC Commissioner Lina Khan proposed the zero-click requirement in March. The FTC says this simple solution would potentially go a long way in freeing customers from a “negative option feature” that is really nothing more than a way to keep charging them for services they no longer want. Khan also suggested a proposal that would require businesses to do a better job informing customers if they are signing up for a paid service.
“Some businesses too often trick consumers into paying for subscriptions they no longer want or didn’t sign up for in the first place,” Khan said in a statement. “The proposal would save consumers time and money, and businesses that continued to use subscription tricks and traps would be subject to stiff penalties.” The FTC did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
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