LONDON – Those who have tried to end a membership on Amazon Prime, the tech giant’s digital subscription service, may be familiar with the multi-click process: warnings that canceling will result in the loss of “exclusive benefits” and prompts to reverse course or to switch to an annual membership instead.
Consumer rights groups in Europe and the United States are now calling on regulators to take action against Amazon over this prime design feature, saying it is manipulating users into holding onto paid memberships.
A Norwegian consumer rights group filed a legal complaint with that country’s regulators on Thursday accusing Amazon of engaging in unfair business practices with the Prime cancellation design. This was the latest step in a broader drive to make technology companies more accountable to users.
“It should be as easy to end a subscription as it ever was,” said Finn Lützow-Holm Myrstad, director of digital policy at the rights group, the Norwegian Consumer Council. “This practice not only betrays consumer expectations and confidence, it also violates European law.”
The move was welcomed on Thursday by advocates of consumer rights in Europe, some of whom said they filed their own complaints, and in the United States.
Ekpizo, a consumer organization in Greece that filed complaints with regulators after hearing consumers, said the design of the Prime cancellation process was “a deliberate effort by Amazon to confuse and mislead its customers”.
In France, UFC-Que Choisir, the country’s largest consumer protection group, has expressed support for the Norwegian complaint. One of the largest German consumer protection groups, VSBV, agreed to join the campaign against Amazon, but was still checking whether German customers were facing similar hurdles.
In the United States, Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer group, said it wrote to the Federal Trade Commission asking them to investigate whether the cancellation policy was in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act.
“Amazon should treat customers with respect instead of trying to undermine their autonomy and combat their choices,” said Burcu Kilic, director of the group’s digital rights program.
Amazon denied claims that the cancellation process created uncertainty.
“We’re making it easy for customers to leave whenever they want,” the company said in a statement Thursday, adding that there are several ways to cancel online or by phone. Information provided during the cancellation process “gives a complete picture of the benefits and services that members cancel,” the company said.
Consumer rights advocates said the technology Amazon is using exemplifies the “dark patterns” used on websites and apps to encourage people to do things they would otherwise not do. Tech companies like Amazon would have a huge impact on consumers.
Techniques can include pinning travel insurance on flights, encouraging people to accept a legal agreement, or signing up for marketing emails, said Harry Brignull, an expert on misleading online practices who coined the term “obscure” in 2010 Patterns can be easily made available to all users, he said.
A recent survey of 1,000 people by the Norwegian Consumer Council found that one in four reported difficulties unsubscribing from digital content services.
The techniques used to keep users signed in to Amazon Prime included complicated navigation boxes and skewed language that viewed membership cancellation as a negative, said Myrstad, of the Norwegian consumer group. “They are used to evoke emotions in you. People are afraid of losing something. They play with your fears. “
Although he described the tactics as manipulative, Mr Brignull said it was unclear whether they were illegal. For example, California’s new data protection law states that “an agreement obtained through the use of dark patterns does not constitute consent,” but it is unclear how this could be applied.
Consumer group efforts come from tech companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple grappling with a barrage of criticism and lawsuits.
In the US, the Department of Justice has accused Google of illegally protecting its search monopoly, while federal and state regulators have sued Facebook for buying up their rivals to dominate social media. In Europe, lawmakers and regulators are developing rules to limit the power of the four companies.
Over a dozen consumer rights groups in Europe and the US have worked together to raise concerns about large tech companies with regulators, said Ursula Pachl, deputy director general of the European Consumer Organization, an umbrella organization that represents groups in 32 countries.
“Europe has very good consumer protection law but it needs to be enforced,” said Ms Pachl, adding that her organization intends to send a letter to the European Commission raising the groups’ concerns. “What we need now is that the authorities use the tools they have in place to apply them to the online market.”
The effort will build on an earlier campaign run by seven European consumer organizations in 2018 that said Google manipulated users to get location tracking information.
Outside of consumer promotions, disgruntled consumers had another avenue available to them in everyday life – they complained loudly, Brignull said.
“My message to consumers would be to publicly complain about these things,” he said, adding that regulators have been paying attention to feedback on social media and business review websites. “It gives them a massive signal.”
The reporting was contributed by Niki Kitsantonis from Athens, Christopher Schuetze from Berlin and Aurelien Breeden from Paris.