The Federal Trade Commission is taking legal action against Amazon for what it claims has been a years-long effort by the e-commerce giant to enroll consumers into its Prime membership program without their consent, while also making it difficult for consumers to cancel their Prime subscriptions, which includes free access to the Prime Video service.
In the complaint, the FTC charges that Amazon used manipulative, coercive, or deceptive user-interface designs known as “dark patterns” to trick consumers into enrolling in automatically-renewing $14.99 monthly Prime subscriptions.
The e-commerce giant allegedly complicated the cancellation process for Prime subscribers who sought to end their membership. The FTC claims the primary purpose of the cancellation process was not to enable subscribers to cancel, but to stop them from doing so.
The government said Amazon management slowed or rejected changes that would’ve made it easier for users to cancel Prime because those changes adversely affected Amazon’s bottom line.
“Amazon tricked and trapped people into recurring subscriptions without their consent, not only frustrating users but also costing them significant money,” FTC Chair Lina Khan said in a statement. “These manipulative tactics harm consumers and law-abiding businesses alike. The FTC will continue to vigorously protect Americans from ‘dark patterns’ and other unfair or deceptive practices in digital markets.”
The FTC describes “dark patterns” as marketing practices that “trick or manipulate users into making choices they would not otherwise have made and that may cause harm,” which the agency said is in violation of the FTC Act, and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act.
Specifically, the FTC alleges that during Amazon’s online checkout process, consumers were faced with numerous opportunities to subscribe to Prime. In many cases, the option to purchase items on Amazon without subscribing to Prime was more difficult for consumers to locate. In some cases, the button presented to consumers to complete their transaction did not clearly state that in choosing that option they were also agreeing to join Prime for a recurring subscription.
The FTC charged that Amazon put in place a cancellation process designed to deter consumers from successfully unsubscribing from Prime. Consumers who attempted to cancel Prime were faced with multiple steps to actually accomplish the task of cancelling, according to the complaint. Consumers had to first locate the cancellation link, which Amazon made difficult. Once they located the link, they were redirected to multiple pages that presented several offers to continue the subscription at a discounted price, to simply turn off the auto-renew feature, or to decide not to cancel. Only after clicking through these pages could consumers finally cancel the service.
The complaint notes that Amazon was aware of consumers being non-consensually enrolled and the complex and confusing process to cancel Prime that the company’s executives failed to take any meaningful steps to address the issues until they were aware of the FTC investigation. In the complaint, the FTC also alleges that Amazon attempted to delay and hinder its investigation in multiple instances.
The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. Amazon is based in Seattle.