The department of consumer affairs (DoCA), in association with the Indian Institute of Technology, Banaras Hindu University (IIT-BHU), is developing plug-ins and browser extensions, expected to be ready within the first 100 days of the new government.

Dark patterns

Dark patterns, intended to trick people online to take unintended actions such as making purchase decisions, amount to misleading advertisement, unfair trade practice or violation of consumer rights.

This tool will be available on multiple platforms, including Windows, Android, and iOS, and will help consumers identify and avoid fraudulent activities, the first person said.

“The plug-in can be downloaded and added to browsers and the plugin will highlight the number of dark patterns used by e-commerce portals through alerts and pop-ups,” this person said.

A plug-in is a software add-on that provides extra features or functionality to an existing programme without changing its core structure. In web browsers, plug-ins can add functionalities like ad blocking, password management and enhanced security.

A browser extension is a small software module that adds specific features or functionalities to a web browser, enhancing its capabilities and customizing the browsing experience. Browser extensions are used for ad blocking, password management, privacy protection, customization, productivity tools, and added conveniences like weather updates or news feeds.

The department of consumer affairs had issued guidelines in November 2023 to curb these malpractices, identifying 13 specific dark patterns such as false urgency alerts, subscription traps, bait-and-switch pricing, and persistent nagging tactics.

Queries emailed to spokespersons of the consumer affairs ministry remained unanswered while spokesmen for Amazon, Flipkart, All India Gaming Federation and EaseMyTrip refused to comment on the matter.

“Browser extensions and plug-ins are being developed to help consumers identify and understand the dark patterns used by e-commerce platforms,” the second person said.

Both persons requested anonymity while speaking with Mint.

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A dark pattern is a trick used in website or app design to make users do things they didn’t plan to do, like signing up for unwanted subscriptions, buying extra items, or sharing personal information.

The use-case of the plug-in extension tool was shown to senior ministry officials during a recently held meeting and they found it to be highly accurate, the first person said.

The detailed presentation showcased how the tool uses Large Language Models (LLMs), Generative AI, and other advanced models to detect dark patterns on e-commerce platforms and alert users.

“Dark patterns do not serve consumer interests and the regulatory framework discouraging their use should be strengthened. AI can be used to identify violations to strengthen enforcement. Public awareness building on their rights and a strong reporting mechanism will also help in clamping down on dark patterns,” said Anand Ramanathan, partner and consumer products and retail sector leader, Deloitte India.

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The 13 dark patterns listed by the ministry’s guidelines are: false urgency, basket sneaking, confirm shaming, forced action, subscription trap, interface interference, bait and switch, drip pricing, disguised advertisements and nagging, trick wording, Saas billing and rogue malwares.

It will be launched after rigorous testing to ensure consumers can use it without any concerns, the second person said, adding that the project is at the developing stage.

According to a KPMG report, India’s e-commerce industry is growing rapidly and is expected to surpass the US to become the world’s second-largest e-commerce market by 2034. The industry is projected to reach $111.40 billion by 2025.

“The government, organizations, and consumers must work together to reduce the impact of dark patterns. Consumers should know about these unfair marketing practices, their rights, and how to report issues. This will help protect everyone in society,” said Manish K Shubhay, partner at The Percept-Law Offices and advocate at the Supreme Court.

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