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Consumer groups target Amazon Prime’s cancellation process

LONDON >> Those who have tried ending a membership in Amazon Prime, the technology giant’s digital subscription service, may be familiar with the multi-click process: warnings that cancellation will mean losing “exclusive benefits,” and prompts to reverse course, or switch to an annual membership instead.

Consumer rights groups in Europe and the United States are now urging regulators to take action against Amazon over that Prime design feature, saying it manipulates users into sticking with paid memberships.

A Norwegian consumer rights group on Thursday filed a legal complaint with that country’s regulators accusing Amazon of engaging in unfair commercial practices with the Prime cancellation design, the latest move in a broader push to make tech companies more accountable to users.

“It should be as easy to end a subscription as it was to subscribe in the first place,” said Finn Lützow-Holm Myrstad, director of digital policy for the rights group, the Norwegian Consumer Council. “This practice not only betrays the expectations and trust of consumers but breaches European law.”

The move was welcomed Thursday by consumer rights advocates in Europe, some of whom said they had filed their own complaints, and in the United States.

Ekpizo, a consumer organization in Greece that said it had lodged complaints with regulators there after hearing from 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 biggest consumer protection group, expressed support for the Norwegian complaint. One of Germany’s biggest consumer protection groups, VSBV, said it was willing to join the action against Amazon, but was still studying whether German customers faced similar hurdles.

In the United States, Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer group, said it had written to the Federal Trade Commission asking it to investigate whether the cancellation policy violated the Federal Trade Commission Act.

“Amazon should treat customers with respect instead of trying to undermine their autonomy and fight their decisions,” said Burcu Kilic, director of the group’s digital rights program.

Amazon said it rejected claims that the cancellation process created uncertainty.

“We make it easy for customers to leave whenever they choose to,” the company said in a statement Thursday, adding that there were several ways to cancel online or with a phone call. Information provided during the cancellation process “gives a full view of the benefits and services members are canceling,” the company said.

Consumer rights advocates said that the technique employed by Amazon exemplifies the “dark patterns” used on websites and apps to encourage people to do things they would not otherwise do. Tech companies like Amazon, they said, held immense sway over consumers.

The techniques can include tacking travel insurance onto flights, encouraging people to accept a legal agreement or signing up for marketing emails, said Harry Brignull, an expert in deceptive online practices who coined the term “dark patterns” in 2010. Once designed, the techniques can easily be deployed for all users, he said.

A recent survey of 1,000 people conducted by the Norwegian Consumer Council found that 1 in 4 reported difficulties unsubscribing from digital content services.

Techniques used to keep users signed up to Amazon Prime included complicated navigation panels and skewed wording that framed membership cancellations as negative, said Myrstad of the Norwegian consumer group. “They’re used to evoke emotions in you. People are afraid of losing something. They play on your fears.”

Though he called the tactics manipulative, Brignull said it was unclear whether they were illegal. The new California Privacy Rights Act, for example, specifies that an “agreement obtained through use of dark patterns does not constitute consent,” but it’s unclear how that might applied.

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