Fortnite ‘dark patterns’ lead to biggest FTC fines of all time

Monday’s pair of settlements between the Federal Trade Commission and Epic Games, the creator of teen favorite Fortnite, each broke their own records.

The agency says the first settlement — a $275 million charge against the company for violating child privacy laws with its products — was the most severe penalty ever for violating the privacy rule. The company also agreed to pay $245 million, the largest amount ever awarded in a game lawsuit brought by the FTC in response to allegations that Epic used “dark patterns” to trick players into paying for goods they didn’t own. he wanted. get

While privacy issues have been on lawmakers’ radars for decades, it’s only in recent years that their attention to such deceptive designs has come to fruition. California formally addressed dark patterns as part of a 2021 update to its state digital privacy law, while a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers released a bipartisan bill last summer to ban the practice.

What are “dark patterns”?

Even if you’ve never heard the term “dark pattern” before, you’ve probably come across it somewhere on the internet.

Technologist Harry Brignull first coined the term in 2010 as a way to code “manipulative or deceptive design decisions” that force end users to take some sort of involuntary action that they might not otherwise do. Some subscription services have been accused of using shady patterns to discourage people from deleting their accounts after the service’s free trial has ended, for example. Others have attached a dark pattern tag to ads that masquerade as independent content to entice the user to click.

These are just two of the twelve different deceptively designed flavors that Brignull has cataloged on his website over the past decade. In some cases, a dark template can entice a buyer to spend more on a purchase, either by dropping the product in their cart or by showing unexpected shipping costs or taxes near the end of the checkout process. Other dark schemes can trick site visitors into accepting more on-site tracking than they want, or make it nearly impossible to turn off such tracking.

According to the FTC’s complaint, Epic was caught using shady schemes to charge Fortnite players without their express consent. More than a year after Epic began offering in-app purchases, the filing explains, young Fortnite players have been allowed to purchase various costumes and accessories for in-game avatars with the “press of buttons.” – no password or card PIN code. – parent owner required.

“Many parents were surprised to learn that Epic charged them hundreds of dollars for internal child activities they did not authorize,” the FTC wrote, detailing one parent’s complaints. old made about $500 worth of in-app purchases “with ease”.

In addition, the FTC clarified that Epic used other shady patterns to make it difficult to cancel purchases or request refunds. Shortly after introducing the Cancel Purchase button in 2019, the agency described the company pushing the button down the screen and making it smaller. The FTC also explained that Epic “intentionally solicits[d] required consumers to go through the difficult and lengthy process of requesting a refund through the Fortnite app, and also required those players to go through “several unnecessary steps” to ultimately submit that request.

While Epic is responsible for their practices, there are still countless other players on the internet who pull off similar stunts. In a 2019 study of 11,000 online stores, researchers found that nearly one in 10 stores engaged in some form of deception to trick shoppers into spending more than they expected. Another survey of the top 240 free apps from the Android app store found that 95% can usually be found using some kind of dark pattern to trick users into clicking on in-app ads. If the FTC is going to crack down on such large-scale fraud, the agency has its work cut out for it.

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