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EDPB on Dark Patterns: Lessons for Marketing Teams

“Dark patterns” are becoming the target of EU data protection authorities, and the new guidelines of the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) on “dark patterns in social media platform interfaces” confirm their focus on such practices. While they are built around examples from social media platforms (real or fictitious), these guidelines contain lessons for all websites and applications. The bad news for marketers: the EDPB doesn’t like it when dry legal texts and interfaces are made catchier or more enticing.

To illustrate, in a section of the guidelines regarding the selection of an account profile photo, the EDPB considers the example of a “help/information” prompt saying “No need to go to the hairdresser’s first. Just pick a photo that says ‘this is me.’” According to the EDPB, such a practice “can impact the final decision made by users who initially decided not to share a picture for their account” and thus makes consent invalid under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Similarly, the EDPB criticises an extreme example of a cookie banner with a humourous link to a bakery cookies recipe that incidentally says, “we also use cookies”, stating that “users might think they just dismiss a funny message about cookies as a baked snack and not consider the technical meaning of the term “cookies.”” The EDPB even suggests that the data minimisation principle, and not security concerns, should ultimately guide an organisation’s choice of which two-factor authentication method to use.

Do these new guidelines reflect privacy paranoia or common sense? The answer should lie somewhere in between, but the whole document (64 pages long) in our view suggests an overly strict approach, one that we hope will move closer to commonsense as a result of a newly started public consultation process.

Let us take a closer look at what useful lessons – or warnings – can be drawn from these new guidelines.

What are “dark patterns” and when are they unlawful?

According to the EDPB, dark patterns are “interfaces and user experiences […] that lead users into making unintended, unwilling and potentially harmful decisions regarding the processing of their personal data” (p. 2). They “aim to influence users’ behaviour and can hinder their ability to effectively protect their personal data and make conscious choices.” The risk associated with dark patterns is higher for websites or applications meant for children, as “dark patterns raise additional concerns regarding potential impact on children” (p. 8).

While the EDPB takes a strongly negative view of dark patterns in general, it recognises that dark patterns do not automatically lead to an infringement of the GDPR. The EDPB acknowledges that “[d]ata protection authorities are responsible for sanctioning the use of dark patterns if these breach GDPR requirements” (emphasis ours; p. 2). Nevertheless, the EDPB guidance strongly links the concept of dark patterns with the data protection by design and by default principles of Art. 25 GDPR, suggesting that disregard for those principles could lead to a presumption that the language or a practice in fact creates a “dark pattern” (p. 11). 

The EDPB refers here to its Guidelines 4/2019 on Article 25 Data Protection by Design and by Default and in particular to the following key principles:

  • “Autonomy – Data subjects should be granted the highest degree of autonomy possible to determine the use made of their personal data, as well as autonomy over the scope and conditions of that use or processing.
  • Interaction – Data subjects must be able to communicate and exercise their rights in respect of the personal data processed by the controller.
  • Expectation – Processing should correspond with data subjects’ reasonable expectations.
  • Consumer choice – The controllers should not “lock in” their users in an unfair manner. Whenever a service processing personal data is proprietary, it may create a lock-in to the service, which may not be fair, if it impairs the data subjects’ possibility to exercise their right of data portability in accordance with Article 20 GDPR.
  • Power balance – Power balance should be a key objective of the controller-data subject relationship. Power imbalances should be avoided. When this is not possible, they should be recognised and accounted for with suitable countermeasures.
  • No deception – Data processing information and options should be provided in an objective and neutral way, avoiding any deceptive or manipulative language or design.
  • Truthful – the controllers must make available information about how they process personal data, should act as they declare they will and not mislead data subjects.”

Is data minimisation compatible with the use of SMS two-factor authentication?

One of the EDPB’s positions, while grounded in the principle of data minimisation, undercuts a security practice that has grown significantly over the past few years. In effect, the EDPB seems to question the validity under the GDPR of requests for phone numbers for two-factor authentication where e-mail tokens would theoretically be possible:

“30. To observe the principle of data minimisation, [organisations] are required not to ask for additional data such as the phone number, when the data users already provided during the sign- up process are sufficient. For example, to ensure account security, enhanced authentication is possible without the phone number by simply sending a code to users’ email accounts or by several other means.
31. Social network providers should therefore rely on means for security that are easier for users to re[1]initiate. For example, the [organisation] can send users an authentication number via an additional communication channel, such as a security app, which users previously installed on their mobile phone, but without requiring the users’ mobile phone number. User authentication via email addresses is also less intrusive than via phone number because users could simply create a new email address specifically for the sign-up process and utilise that email address mainly in connection with the Social Network. A phone number, however, is not that easily interchangeable, given that it is highly unlikely that users would buy a new SIM card or conclude a new phone contract only for the reason of authentication.”
(emphasis ours; p. 15)

The EDPB also appears to be highly critical of phone-based verification in the context of registration “because the email address constitutes the regular contact point with users during the registration process” (p. 15).

This position is unfortunate, as it suggests that data minimisation may preclude controllers from even assessing which method of two-factor authentication – in this case, e-mail versus SMS one-time passwords – better suits its requirements, taking into consideration the different security benefits and drawbacks of the two methods. The EDPB’s reasoning could even be used to exclude any form of stronger two-factor authentication, as additional forms inevitably require separate processing (e.g., phone number or third-party account linking for some app-based authentication methods). 

For these reasons, organisations should view this aspect of the new EDPB guidelines with a healthy dose of skepticism. It likewise will be important for interested stakeholders to participate in the consultation to explain that data minimisation should not be the only factor, and that additional security (e.g. app-based tokens for multi-factor authentication) can justify processing additional data.

Consent withdrawal: same number of clicks?

Recent decisions by EU regulators (notably two decisions by the French authority, the CNIL – see our online commentary) have led to speculation about whether EU rules effectively require website operators to make it possible for data subjects to withdraw consent to all cookies with one single click, just as most websites make it possible to give consent through a single click. The authorities themselves have not stated that this is unequivocally required, although privacy activists notably filed complaints against hundreds of websites, many of them for not including a “reject all” button on their cookie banner.

The EDPB now appears to side with the privacy activists in this respect, stating that “consent cannot be considered valid under the GDPR when consent is obtained through only one mouse-click, swipe or keystroke, but the withdrawal takes more steps, is more difficult to achieve or takes more time” (p. 14).

Operationally, however, it seems impossible to comply with a “one-click withdrawal” standard in absolute terms. Just pulling up settings after registration or after the first visit to a website will always require an extra click, purely to open those settings. We expect this issue to be examined by the courts eventually.

Is creative wording indicative of a “dark pattern”?

The EDPB’s guidelines contain several examples of wording that is intended to convince the user to take a specific action.

The photo example mentioned in the introduction above is an illustration, but other (likely fictitious) examples include the following:

  • For sharing geolocation data: “Hey, a lone wolf, are you? But sharing and connecting with others help make the world a better place! Share your geolocation! Let the places and people around you inspire you!” (p.17)
  • To prompt a user to provide a self-description: “Tell us about your amazing self! We can’t wait, so come on right now and let us know!” (p. 17)

The EDPB criticises the language used, stating that it is “emotional steering”:

“[S]uch techniques do not cultivate users’ free will to provide their data, since the prescriptive language used can make users feel obliged to provide a self-description because they have already put time into the registration and wish to complete it. When users are in the process of registering to an account, they are less likely to take time to consider the description they give or even if they would like to give one at all. This is particularly the case when the language used delivers a sense of urgency or sounds like an imperative. If users feel this obligation, even when in reality providing the data is not mandatory, this can have an impact on their “free will”” (pp. 17-18).

Similarly, in a section about account deletion and deactivation, the EDPB criticises interfaces that highlight “only the negative, discouraging consequences of deleting their accounts,” e.g., “you'll lose everything forever,” or “you won’t be able to reactivate your account” (p. 55). The EDPB even criticises interfaces that preselect deactivation or pause options over delete options, considering that “[t]he default selection of the pause option is likely to nudge users to select it instead of deleting their account as initially intended. Therefore, the practice described in this example can be considered as a breach of Article 12 (2) GDPR since it does not, in this case, facilitate the exercise of the right to erasure, and even tries to nudge users away from exercising it” (p. 56). This, combined with the EDPB’s aversion to confirmation requests (see section 5 below), suggests that the EDPB is ignoring the risk that a data subject might opt for deletion without fully recognizing the consequences, i.e., loss of access to the deleted data.

The EDPB’s approach suggests that any effort to woo users into giving more data or leaving data with the organisation will be viewed as harmful by data protection authorities. Yet data protection rules are there to prevent abuse and protect data subjects, not to render all marketing techniques illegal.

In this context, the guidelines should in our opinion be viewed as an invitation to re-examine marketing techniques to ensure that they are not too pushy – in the sense that users would in effect truly be pushed into a decision regarding personal data that they would not otherwise have made. Marketing techniques are not per se unlawful under the GDPR but may run afoul of GDPR requirements in situations where data subjects are misled or robbed of their choice. 

Other key lessons for marketers and user interface designers

  • Avoid continuous prompting: One of the issues regularly highlighted by the EDPB is “continuous prompting”, i.e., prompts that appear again and again during a user’s experience on a platform. The EDPB suggests that this creates fatigue, leading the user to “give in,” i.e., by “accepting to provide more data or to consent to another processing, as they are wearied from having to express a choice each time they use the platform” (p. 14). Examples given by the EDPB include the SMS two-factor authentication popup mentioned above, as well as “import your contacts” functionality. Outside of social media platforms, the main example for most organisations is their cookie policy (so this position by the EDPB reinforces the need to manage cookie banners properly). In addition, newsletter popups and popups about “how to get our new report for free by filling out this form” are frequent on many digital properties. While popups can be effective ways to get more subscribers or more data, the EDPB guidance suggests that regulators will consider such practices questionable from a data protection perspective.
  • Ensure consistency or a justification for confirmation steps: The EDPB highlights the “longer than necessary” dark pattern at several places in its guidelines (in particular pp. 18, 52, & 57), with illustrations of confirmation pop-ups that appear before a user is allowed to select a more privacy-friendly option (and while no such confirmation is requested for more privacy-intrusive options). Such practices are unlawful according to the EDPB. This does not mean that confirmation pop-ups are always unlawful – just that you need to have a good justification for using them where you do. 
  • Have a good reason for preselecting less privacy-friendly options: Because the GDPR requires not only data protection by design but also data protection by default, make sure that you are able to justify an interface in which a more privacy-intrusive option is selected by default – or better yet, don’t make any preselection. The EDPB calls preselection of privacy-intrusive options “deceptive snugness” (“Because of the default effect which nudges individuals to keep a pre-selected option, users are unlikely to change these even if given the possibility” p. 19).
  • Make all privacy settings available in all platforms: If a user is asked to make a choice during registration or upon his/her first visit (e.g., for cookies, newsletters, sharing preferences, etc.), ensure that those settings can all be found easily later on, from a central privacy settings page if possible, and alongside all data protection tools (such as tools for exercising a data subject’s right to access his/her data, to modify data, to delete an account, etc.). Also make sure that all such functionality is available not only on a desktop interface but also for mobile devices and across all applications. The EDPB illustrates this point by criticising the case where an organisation has a messaging app that does not include the same privacy statement and data subject request tools as the main app (p. 27).
  • Be clearer in using general language such as “Your data might be used to improve our services”: It is common in most privacy statements to include a statement that personal data (e.g., customer feedback) “can” or “may be used” to improve an organisation’s products and services. According to the EDPB, the word “services” is likely to be “too general” to be viewed as “clear,” and it is “unclear how data will be processed for the improvement of services.” The use of the conditional tense in the example (“might”) also “leaves users unsure whether their data will be used for the processing or not” (p. 25). Given that the EDPB’s stance in this respect is a confirmation of a position taken by EU regulators in previous guidance on transparency, and serves as a reminder to tell data subjects how data will be used. 
  • Ensure linguistic consistency: If your website or app is available in more than one language, ensure that all data protection notices and tools are available in those languages as well and that the language choice made on the main interface is automatically taken into account on the data-related pages (pp. 25-26). 

Best practices according to the EDPB

Finally, the EDPB highlights some other “best practices” throughout its guidelines. We have combined them below for easier review:

  • Structure and ease of access:
    • Shortcuts: Links to information, actions, or settings that can be of practical help to users to manage their data and data protection settings should be available wherever they relate to information or experience (e.g., links redirecting to the relevant parts of the privacy policy; in the case of a data breach communication to users, to provide users with a link to reset their password).
    • Data protection directory: For easy navigation through the different section of the menu, provide users with an easily accessible page from where all data protection-related actions and information are accessible. This page could be found in the organisation’s main navigation menu, the user account, through the privacy policy, etc.
    • Privacy Policy Overview: At the start/top of the privacy policy, include a collapsible table of contents with headings and sub-headings that shows the different passages the privacy notice contains. Clearly identified sections allow users to quickly identify and jump to the section they are looking for.
    • Sticky navigation: While consulting a page related to data protection, the table of contents could be constantly displayed on the screen allowing users to quickly navigate to relevant content thanks to anchor links.
  • Transparency:
    • Organisation contact information: The organisation’s contact address for addressing data protection requests should be clearly stated in the privacy policy. It should be present in a section where users can expect to find it, such as a section on the identity of the data controller, a rights related section, or a contact section.
    • Reaching the supervisory authority: Stating the specific identity of the EU supervisory authority and including a link to its website or the specific website page for lodging a complaint is another EDPB recommendation. This information should be present in a section where users can expect to find it, such as a rights-related section.
    • Change spotting and comparison: When changes are made to the privacy notice, make previous versions accessible with the date of release and highlight any changes.
  • Terminology & explanations:
    • Coherent wording: Across the website, the same wording and definition is used for the same data protection concepts. The wording used in the privacy policy should match that used on the rest of the platform.
    • Providing definitions: When using unfamiliar or technical words or jargon, providing a definition in plain language will help users understand the information provided to them. The definition can be given directly in the text when users hover over the word and/or be made available in a glossary.
    • Explaining consequences: When users want to activate or deactivate a data protection control, or give or withdraw their consent, inform them in a neutral way of the consequences of such action.
    • Use of examples: In addition to providing mandatory information that clearly and precisely states the purpose of processing, offering specific data processing examples can make the processing more tangible for users
  • Contrasting Data Protection Elements: Making data protection-related elements or actions visually striking in an interface that is not directly dedicated to the matter helps readability. For example, when posting a public message on the platform, controls for geolocation should be directly available and clearly visible.
  • Data Protection Onboarding: Just after the creation of an account, include data protection points within the onboarding experience for users to discover and set their preferences seamlessly. This can be done by, for example, inviting them to set their data protection preferences after adding their first friend or sharing their first post.
  • Notifications (including data breach notifications): Notifications can be used to raise awareness of users of aspects, changes, or risks related to personal data processing (e.g., when a data breach occurs). These notifications can be implemented in several ways, such as through inbox messages, pop-in windows, fixed banners at the top of the webpage, etc.

Next steps and international perspectives

These guidelines (available online) are subject to public consultation until 2 May 2022, so it is possible they will be modified as a result of the consultation and, we hope, improved to reflect a more pragmatic view of data protection that balances data subjects’ rights, security, and operational business needs. If you wish to contribute to the public consultation, note that the EDPB publishes feedback it receives (as a result, we have occasionally submitted feedback on behalf of clients wishing to remain anonymous).

Irrespective of the outcome of the public consultation, the guidelines are guaranteed to have an influence on the approach of EU data protection authorities in their investigations. From this perspective, it is better to be forewarned – and to have legal arguments at your disposal if you wish to adopt an approach that deviates from the EDPB’s position.

Moreover, these guidelines come at a time when the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is also concerned with dark patterns. The FTC recently published an enforcement policy statement on the matter in October 2021. Dark patterns are also being discussed at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). International dialogue can be helpful if conversations about desired policy also consider practical solutions that can be implemented by businesses and reflect a desirable user experience for data subjects.

Organisations should consider evaluating their own techniques to encourage users to go one way or another and document the justification for their approach.

If you need assistance in this respect, do reach out to our data protection team.

In the EU:
Peter Craddock;; +32 (0) 2 645 5073

In the U.S:
Sheila Millar;; +1 202.434.4143
Tracy Marshall;; +1 202.434.4234