As a rising proportion of Indian consumers take to online shopping, complaints about their buying experience have also been soaring in tandem. Complaints relating to e-commerce received by the National Consumer Helpline are said to have trebled between FY18 and FY22. With India’s digital revolution now spreading well beyond the metros, many e-commerce customers today hail from tier-2 and tier-3 towns. Many of them aren’t digital natives and are experimenting with online purchases for the first time. Thus, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs’ efforts to identify and bar doubtful practices used by some platforms to attract, retain and extract higher revenue from their customers, are welcome.
A new set of guidelines on Prevention and Regulation of Dark Patterns, jointly drafted by the Consumer Affairs Ministry and Advertising Standards Council of India, are proposed to be incorporated into the Consumer Protection Act 2019. The Act already bars unfair and restrictive trade practices by e-commerce platforms and allows consumers to seek grievance redressal through the channels available for offline entities. The draft guidelines seek to prohibit online platforms offering goods and services as well as their advertisers and sellers from using ‘dark patterns’. After defining ‘dark pattern’ as any practice using UI/UX (user interface/user experience) designed to trick consumers into doing what they didn’t intend to do, the guidelines go on to list out 10 specific dark patterns that are to be prohibited. Given that the specific practices listed out may not be the only ones used by platforms, it would have perhaps been better had the Ministry adopted a principle-based approach to this regulation. As things stand, the list includes creating false urgency, forced action, subscription trap, disguised advertising and nagging. Some of these practices, such as covertly adding products to a buyer’s basket, forcing her to buy a subscription instead of a single product, switching products after purchase or making it impossible to cancel a subscription, deserve to be prohibited and penalised.
But some of the listed practices — such as advertising ‘limited stock’ sales, designing the user interface to spotlight some information over others, presenting advertising as content etc — appear less serious. It is unclear whether different dark patterns will attract varying penalties or a uniform one.
Lakhs of legacy cases are already pending before consumer forums; therefore it is moot if complaints about dark patterns will receive prompt redressal. Besides, online consumers in India face far more serious issues than aggressive selling practices. There’s a rising tide of complaints about fake shopping sites making off with customers’ money and misusing personal data, non-delivery of products and delivery of defective products and a complete lack of response from sellers hosted on e-commerce sites. Policing fly-by-night operators in e-commerce and building capacity at consumer forums to deliver quick justice should be the government’s priorities.