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Dympna O’Sullivan
Andrea Curley and Damien Gordon

TU Dublin, Ireland

Dark patterns are user interface design choices that benefit an online service by coercing, steering, or deceiving users into making unintended and potentially harmful decisions. They are an increasingly common occurrence on digital platforms including social media sites, shopping websites, mobile apps, and video games. At best, dark patterns annoy and frustrate users. At worst, they can mislead and deceive users in unethical ways, e.g., by causing financial loss, tricking users into giving up vast amounts of personal data, or inducing compulsive and addictive behavior in adults and children.

Some examples of dark patterns are:

Trick questions: While filling in a form you respond to a question that tricks you into giving an answer you didn’t intend. When glanced upon quickly the question appears to ask one thing, but when read carefully it asks another thing entirely.

Sneak into Basket: You attempt to purchase something, but somewhere in the purchasing journey the site sneaks an additional item into your basket, often through the use of an opt-out radio button or checkbox on a prior page.

Roach Motel: You get into a situation very easily, but then you find it is hard to get out of it (e.g. a premium subscription).

Privacy Zuckering: You are tricked into publicly sharing more information about yourself than you really intended to. Named after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Misdirection: The design purposefully focuses your attention on one thing in order to distract your attention from another.

Bait and Switch: You set out to do one thing, but a different, undesirable thing happens instead.

Forced Continuity: When your free trial with a service comes to an end and your credit card silently starts getting charged without any warning. In some cases this is made even worse by making it difficult to cancel the membership.

Friend Spam: The product asks for your email or social media permissions under the pretence it will be used for a desirable outcome (e.g. finding friends), but then spams all your contacts in a message that claims to be from you.

This issue is one of a rapidly growing number of computer ethics issues that have been emerging recently, to such an extent that a number of third-level institutes across Europe are collaborating to explore some of these key ethical challenges, and to develop educational content that is both based on pedagogically sound principles, and motivated by international exemplars of best practice to highlight these matters as part of the Erasmus+ Ethics4EU project. One specific development that is being undertaken is the creation of a lesson focusing on dark patterns, and concentrating specifically the ethics of developing software interfaces that can have a negative impact on people’s lives.

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