Op-Eds

A popular social media app asks you to authorize facial recognition. You agree, taking the advice from the pop-up that states this feature will provide protection from others attempting to impersonate you. But after pulling back the curtain, we know this technology can be used to recognize emotional states, target advertising and identify you in other ways.

Sadly, it’s just one example of the tricks online platforms purposely use to undermine user choice in a battle to track, capture and keep our attention.

Every day, Americans run into deceptive designs on the Internet known as “dark patterns.” Believe it or not, we deal with them almost every time we look at our smart phones or open our laptops.

Dark patterns are user interfaces intentionally designed to manipulate users online. These design tactics coax users into taking actions they normally wouldn’t under informed circumstances, such as sharing personal contact information or text messages.

A sudden notification appears in the middle of a task and repeats until you consent. There’s also the deliberate obscuring of alternative choices or settings through design. Many times, privacy settings will push users to click “I Agree,” when the only way to preserve privacy is to press “Learn More” and detour through pages of text in a long, complex process. Other times, the “X” button is camouflaged into the background, forcing you to simply give up.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what these deceptive interfaces were designed to do. Trying to escape the maze, you just click “OK” — which can share contacts, messages, browsing activity, photos or geolocation without your realization.

Young children are especially vulnerable to malicious design that promotes compulsive usage. Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and former design ethicist at Google, argued that we often make the mistake of viewing compulsive behavior online through the lens of an older era. People equate social media usage today to talking on the phone 50 years ago.

“What this misses is that the telephone in the 1970s didn’t have a thousand engineers on the other side who were redesigning it to work with other telephones … updating the way your telephone worked every day to be more and more persuasive,” he said during a during a “60 Minutes” interview.

Dark patterns are pushing ethical boundaries from persuasion to deception. The longer they exist, the less autonomy we have over our online experience. We cannot allow these unfair practices to continue, especially for the largest online operators that are ingrained into our daily lives with an unmatched ability to track us across multiple devices and networks.

As the Internet rapidly evolves, we need to act now to hold these large tech platforms accountable. It’s why I’ve partnered with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., to introduce the Deceptive Experiences To Online Users Reduction (DETOUR) Act.

This bill would fight dark patterns by prohibiting the largest online platforms — those with over 100 million monthly active users — from relying on user interfaces that intentionally impair user autonomy, decision-making or choice. The Federal Trade Commission would enforce the law and act as a regulatory backstop.

The legislation would create a professional standards body to develop best practices surrounding user design for large online operators. It also would prohibit these platforms from conducting behavioral experiments without fair consumer consent.

Importantly, the DETOUR Act goes further to ban design features that purposely cultivate compulsive use among children under the age of 13. Legal guardrails protecting children online must keep pace with the Internet’s central role in our society’s communication and education.

We need more transparency and trust online. Everyone should have control of their personal information and be presented with clear opportunities to make informed decisions.

The bipartisan DETOUR Act is a vital step in protecting consumer choice and privacy both now and in the future. Working together, we can curb this deception of Americans online.