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Security & privacy

Ended up on a sketchy website? There’s a new way to report it

The internet is equal parts fantastical knowledge and dark back alleys of malice. On the surface, most of us who use the internet daily will go about our business in relative safety. Sticking to familiar websites, everything seems as it should be.

Dive a bit deeper into the murky side of the world wide web, and the monsters start to appear. The Dark Web harbors websites that don’t want to be found. They hide from search engines and prefer encrypted connections.

Seldom will one website cross the boundary between the two different types of internet. But that doesn’t mean web developers won’t try the Dark Web’s tactics on the surface web. For that, there is a new way to report them.

Here’s the backstory

The biggest motivator for any website is increasing revenue, daily users visiting the page and serving advertisements. Most websites adhere to an unspoken set of design rules, but others opt to trick, confuse or complicate their web design.

There is a collective name for it: dark patterns. Shady web design practices like a tiny X on a pop-up, buttons that are hard to find, or even a lengthy cancellation process fall into this term. Basically, anything that makes browsing confusing or unnecessarily complex.

“We need to take a stand against dark patterns,” explains Consumer Reports. That’s why it set up a website to report shady practices. The Dark Patterns Tip Line was created as a way to “fight back against companies using manipulative dark patterns to take our private information, money, and time.”

Dark patterns are everywhere

In the introduction, we painted a bleak picture of the internet’s underbelly. But regular web pages, apps and services aren’t that far off. As Consumer Reports explains, there are dark patterns all around us — some are just difficult to recognize.

Some examples of dark patterns include:

  • Social media platforms force you to connect your phone number.
  • Smart devices with tiny opt-out buttons for certain functions.
  • Websites and services that don’t remind you about a free trial expiring and then charge you.
  • Mental health apps that share your data with other companies without getting your permission.
  • Online learning platforms that share personal details with other learners.
  • You are denied a choice or put at a disadvantage if you deny an option.
  • Using language that could trick users into something they ordinarily wouldn’t select.

“Dark Patterns have gotten more pervasive, there are more of them and more people are encountering them. But I think people haven’t realized the severity, impact, and proliferation of the problem,” explained Jen King, the privacy and data policy fellow at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.

Have you ever encountered a dark pattern? Report the offending website at darkpatternstipline.org and warn the online community about the dangers.

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