Need to know
- Subscription traps are one of the most common ‘dark patterns’ affecting consumers online
- Users are often unable to cancel free trials or subscriptions and spend more than they intended to
- Big companies such as Amazon have been caught out using these traps
If you've ever signed up for a free trial of an online service and then been rolled over onto a paid monthly or yearly subscription without your knowing consent, or struggled to cancel an existing subscription for a service, you're far from alone.
Subscription traps are just one of the online 'dark patterns' (also known as 'deceptive design') that trick users into parting with more money than they intended to. Dark patterns are design features that are built into a website or app to influence us and cause harm.
Dark patterns are design features that are built into a website or app to influence us and cause harm
Kate Bower, consumer data advocate at CHOICE, says subscription traps are one of the most common dark patterns.
"Subscription traps are when an online retailer or service provider treats a single purchase or free trial as consent for an ongoing paid subscription," she says. "Often the interface uses several deceptive design patterns to trick people into signing up for a subscription unknowingly – for example, pre-ticked checkboxes, trick questions and redirection."
Damaging consumer trust
Earlier this year the Consumer Policy Research Centre (CPRC) conducted research on the prevalence of dark patterns in Australia and how they affect consumers.
In a nationally representative survey of 2000 Australians, CPRC found that 76% had experienced difficulty in cancelling an online subscription, including unsubscribing before a free trial period ends; 44% of people found the practice annoying; and 39% found it deceptive.
Chandni Gupta, digital policy director at CPRC, says subscription traps also erode customer trust in businesses, with 41% of respondents saying they make them want to stop using an app or website, and 39% feeling that they can't trust the business.
Dark patterns… ensure that it is as difficult as possible for you to be able to unsubscribe and leave something that you no longer need or wantChandni Gupta, digital policy director, Consumer Policy Research Centre
"What we called in the report 'Hotel California' [or forced continuity] is just one of the dark patterns that we see used," says Gupta. "Often they are layered on top of other dark patterns to ensure that it is as difficult as possible for you to be able to unsubscribe and leave something that you no longer need or want.
"It's one of these things that are quite prevalent, so quite likely many businesses are doing this intentionally."
Gupta adds that although subscription traps are "deeply unfair", in many cases they're legal under current Australian legislation.
The case against Amazon
Subscription traps aren't just limited to smaller companies. One of the largest online companies in the world, Amazon, has been caught out using them on their subscription services such as Amazon Prime.
In 2021 the Norwegian Consumer Council (NCC) filed a legal complaint against Amazon after they found it took users only a few clicks to subscribe to Amazon Prime – but at least seven clicks to unsubscribe from the service. Sixteen European consumer organisations and one in the USA joined in the complaint.
When you talk about Amazon Prime... it's global and the consumer harm is hugeFinn Myrstad, director of digital policy at the Norwegian Consumer Council
Finn Myrstad, director of digital policy at the NCC, says the reason they chose to take the case against Amazon was to test the limits of the law when it comes to dark patterns, and because of the widespread consumer harm they cause.
"When you talk about Amazon Prime you are looking at some 200 million global users, so it's global and the consumer harm is huge," Myrstad says, adding that he believes it likely that the company intentionally makes it difficult for users to unsubscribe.
In the end the European Commission negotiated a settlement with Amazon where they would make it significantly easier for customers in the European Union (EU) to unsubscribe from their Prime accounts.
"We hope this case will create a precedent to say that companies should change their ways," he says.
The law not keeping up
Professor Jeannie Paterson at the University of Melbourne law centre says the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) hasn't kept up in this space, and that although many of these dark patterns around subscription traps are potentially "misleading" and "unfair", they're probably not illegal.
"An unfair trading prohibition would make it easier to respond to online design choices that make it hard for people to exit subscriptions or other services," she says.
Australia falling behind internationally
CHOICE's Kate Bower agrees that the law in Australia is lagging compared with other countries.
"A ban on unfair trading practices would bring the ACL up to speed with the range of harmful practices we're seeing across the digital economy," says Bower. "It would address practices such as subscription traps and false consumer reviews, which are oppressive, exploitative or contrary to consumer expectations of fairness in the market.
There are bans on unfair trading practices in similar markets and countries, including the USA, UK, EU, Canada and SingaporeKate Bower, CHOICE consumer data advocate
"There are bans on unfair trading practices in similar markets and countries, including the USA, UK, EU, Canada and Singapore. The EU's ban describes an unfair practice as one that is 'contrary to the requirements of professional diligence and materially distorts the economic behaviour of consumers' by impairing their ability to make an informed decision."
Expectation of fairness
Gutpa and Bower agree that customers should be able to have the same expectations around shopping and their rights online as they do in physical stores.
"Australians expect fairness both online and offline," says Bower. "The law should uphold that expectation and require it of businesses, no matter where they interact with people – be it through websites or in bricks-and-mortar stores."
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.