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Exploring Big Tech's "dark patterns"

John Thune
Sen. John Thune. Photo: Pete Marovich/Getty Images

Lawmakers have focused for close to a year on what consumer data platforms like Google and Facebook collect. Now, another question is becoming increasingly central: How do they get that data in the first place?

Why it matters: Policymakers are digging into how so-called "dark patterns" and opaque algorithms affect the experience of people using the platforms, putting a spotlight on design practices many view as deceptive.

The backdrop: The term "dark patterns" can describe various interfaces used to manipulate or trick users into taking actions they wouldn't take if they had clear options and informed consent.

  • Such tactics can include catching a user unaware by interrupting them, asking repeatedly until a user consents, hiding alternate choices, and making it harder to agree to more privacy-friendly options.

Driving the news: A Senate Commerce Committee hearing this morning is looking into the ways "algorithmic decision-making and machine learning on internet platforms influences the public."

  • Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who is chairing the subcommittee hearing, said in a statement he looks forward to "convening this important hearing, particularly as Congress continues its work on crafting data privacy legislation."
  • A briefing later in the day will feature experts talking about these user design features plus comments from the sponsors of a bill to regulate their usage.

What they're saying: "User consent remains weakened by the presence of dark patterns and unethical design," according to prepared remarks from Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), a sponsor of the anti-dark patterns bill along with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). "Curbing the use of dark patterns will be foundational to increasing trust online."

  • Witnesses at the hearing will include Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist who has become a very public critic of Big Tech, and Maggie Stanphill, a director of user experience at Google.

The big picture: This is another sign that lawmakers are moving beyondthe "notice and consent" approach that has dominated privacy regulation for years.

The bottom line: These proposals could strike at the heart of Silicon Valley platforms' business models, and the way today's tech products are built.