November 2, 2023
On 25 October 2023, the IMCO Committee of the European Parliament adopted their Draft Report on addictive design of online services and consumer protection, having added a number of amendments to the original version of the Draft Report published in July. The Committee states that certain platforms and tech companies exploit psychological vulnerabilities, often targeting minors, by designing digital interfaces to maximise the frequency and duration of user visits with a view to increasing data collected and time and money spent. Such designs can cause physical, psychological and material harm. Examples of services, many of which the Committee asserts are designed to be as addictive as possible, include online games, social media, film, TV and music streaming services, online marketplaces and dating apps. Example of addictive practices include infinite scroll, default autoplay function, constant push and read receipt notifications, time-limited content, personalised recommendations and the “likes” and “is typing” features. It calls on the Commission to assess and, where appropriate, close existing regulatory gaps regarding consumer vulnerabilities, dark patterns and addictive features of digital services.
In particular, the Committee calls on the Commission to adopt the guidelines identified in the EU Digital Services Act relating to online interface designs and mitigation of risk, to ensure that the Commission’s current evaluation of EU consumer law (Fitness Check of EU consumer law on digital fairness) tackles the growing issues around addictive, behavioural and manipulative design, and to consider whether dark patterns and manipulative practices could already be prohibited through the blacklist under the EU Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (“UCPD”). The Committee considers that the UCPD should include a concept of “digital asymmetry” and should reverse the burden of proof for practices that the Commission or national authorities consider to be addictive.
The Committee calls for a specific assessment of interaction-based recommender systems, in particular hyper-personalised systems, and for an examination of whether an obligation to switch off such systems by default is desirable. The Committee demands that the Commission creates a digital “right not to be disturbed” by turning all “attention-seeking” features off by design and urges the Commission to foster ethical design of online services by default. The Draft Report also lists a number of good design practices, particularly for children, such as warnings or automatic locks when users have spent more than a certain amount of time on a service, the possibility for users to restrict access to services between certain times, weekly summaries of total screentime and awareness raising concerning potential risks resulting from problematic online behaviours. Finally, the Committee calls on the Commission to coordinate, facilitate and fund targeted research into addictive design.
Parliament will vote on whether to accept the Draft Report in its December plenary session. It will not create new legislation but could inform or influence future EU policymaking.
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