In a recent position paper, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has warned UK companies about the potential legal consequences of using harmful web design practices that encourage users to provide excessive amounts of personal information. Teaming up with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the ICO emphasized the need for organizations to prioritize user choice and control. The report highlights several problematic design techniques, such as pressuring users into sharing personal information for discounts and making it difficult to reject personalized ads. By drawing attention to these practices, the ICO hopes to empower users to make informed decisions about their online data and ensure that businesses face enforcement action if they engage in unfair and dishonest website design.
Regulator Warns Against Harmful Web Design Practices
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has issued a warning to UK companies about the potential dangers of harmful web design practices. In collaboration with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the ICO published a position paper titled “Harmful design in digital markets: How online choice architecture practices can undermine consumer choice and control over personal information.” The paper outlines the main pitfalls of harmful web design and provides recommendations for organizations to improve their design choices.
According to the ICO, harmful web design practices involve using various tricks and techniques to encourage users to provide excessive amounts of personal information. These practices can range from subtle manipulations to overtly pressuring users into sharing their data. The ICO’s executive director of regulatory risk, Stephen Almond, stated that some of these design practices may have gone unnoticed for an extended period and may be present on thousands of websites.
The ICO and CMA aim to raise awareness about the potential negative impacts of harmful web design practices. These practices can have a detrimental effect on consumers’ lives, such as continuously bombarding individuals with targeted advertisements related to specific issues, like gambling addiction. The ICO warns businesses that intentionally and persistently designing their websites in an unfair and dishonest manner may result in enforcement action.
Examples of Harmful Web Design Practices
The position paper identifies several specific examples of harmful web design practices. These practices include:
Difficulty in refusing personalized ads
Some websites make it challenging for users to reject personalized ads by not providing an equal choice between accepting or rejecting all cookies. This lack of choice can manipulate users into providing consent for targeted advertising.
Complicated privacy controls
Websites with overly complicated privacy controls can confuse consumers and discourage them from engaging with privacy settings. Complex controls may lead users to unknowingly share more personal information than they intend.
Leading language to gather personal information
Web designers may use persuasive language to encourage users to disclose personal information voluntarily. This manipulative tactic can deceive users into providing more data than necessary.
Pressuring users into signing up for discounts
Some websites pressure users into signing up for discounts or special offers in exchange for their personal information. This coercion can lead individuals to share data they may not be comfortable disclosing.
Encouraging users to share more data
Websites often bundle choices together to encourage users to share more data than they initially intended. This strategy exploits users’ subconscious desire to provide more information, resulting in the over-sharing of personal data.
Impact of Harmful Web Design Practices
The ICO emphasizes the negative effects of harmful web design practices on consumers’ lives. These practices can expose individuals to intrusive advertisements, potentially exacerbating issues such as gambling addiction. The ICO advocates for the protection of consumer data online and emphasizes the importance of responsible web design in safeguarding user privacy.
Enforcement and Consequences
The ICO takes a firm stance on unfair and dishonest design choices, warning businesses of potential enforcement action. By deliberately choosing to design their websites in an unfair manner, companies risk facing consequences for violating data protection laws. The ICO’s warning serves as a reminder to organizations to prioritize ethical and transparent design practices to protect user privacy.
Recommendations for Web Design
To address the issue of harmful web design practices, the ICO and CMA offer several recommendations:
User-centric design choices
Companies should prioritize user experience and make design choices that empower users with choice and control over their personal information. Websites should be transparent and provide clear options for users to manage their privacy settings.
Testing and trialing new design choices
Organizations should thoroughly test and try out new design choices before implementing them on their websites. This allows for the identification of potential pitfalls or harmful effects on users’ privacy.
Consideration of data protection and competition law
Web designers should always consider the implications of new design practices on data protection and competition laws. It is essential to ensure that design choices comply with legal requirements and promote fair competition in the digital marketplace.
The ICO’s warning against harmful web design practices serves as a reminder of the importance of prioritizing user privacy and data protection. By adopting user-centric design choices, organizations can create online experiences that empower users and respect their privacy. Through collaboration with regulatory bodies like the ICO and CMA, businesses can ensure that their websites comply with legal and ethical standards, promoting a safer and more transparent digital marketplace.
News 10 Aug 2023 Written by Phil MuncasterUK / EMEA News Reporter, Infosecurity Magazine