(Image: FTC)The Federal Trade Commission has announced that it will begin “ramping up enforcement” against companies that manipulate people into starting subscriptions or that make it difficult to cancel services. It’s an unanticipated move that should disappoint almost no one—except maybe your cable company.
In an announcement from late last month, the FTC said companies that failed to obtain informed consent or provide clear upfront information upon selling a service would be considered guilty of using dark patterns to trick or trap customers. The agency’s new enforcement policy statement warns companies involved in such practices that without rapid changes, the FTC may pursue civil penalties, injunctive relief, and consumer redress. The statement strictly outlines what it looks like for a company to obtain a customer’s consent and prenotify customers of imminent charges. It also warns companies against using a customer’s silence or failure to act as permission to continue charging for a service. The new enforcement policy was approved by a 3-1 vote, with the only dissent coming from Commissioner Christine S. Wilson on the basis of contradiction with the FTC’s open rulemaking.
This isn’t the first time the FTC has cracked down on shady subscription practices. In fact, the FTC has been a major factor in trying to prevent such practices for years, having enforced rules against questionable or downright exploitative automatic renewal terms, free-to-pay conversions, and user interfaces that trick customers into sticking with a subscription even when they want to cancel. The FTC has sued companies for hiding cancellation buttons online, and for making customers listen to lengthy ads or sit on hold for extended periods of time before they can even talk about cancelling a plan.
The frustration of figuring out how to cancel, say, an internet package or streaming service is so pervasive that it could practically be considered an American rite of passage. Mainstream television has incorporated jokes about the whole ordeal into shows like Saturday Night Live and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, knowing just about anyone watching would be able to relate. Of course, a general threat of enforcement is different from actually bringing down the hammer on service providers who love to keep customers on hold—but here’s hoping the experience of tearing one’s hair out to cancel a service becomes a little less relatable with the FTC’s new enforcement policy.
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