Internet privacy laws are coming fast and furious in the EU. For those who also feel Online has impaired their sense of time or ability to form new memories, GDPR passed less than a year ago, widely-protested copyright directives passed a vote last month, and the UK put forth broad measures to regulate social media just over a week ago. In all instances, adversaries have cautioned against the unintended consequences.
Speaking of, here comes the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office’s (ICO) 122-page proposal of standards intended to affect websites, apps, games, and “connected toys” that are likely to be used by kids. Unlike the US’s child data collection law—COPPA—which is aimed at the under-13 set, ICO’s guidelines would apply to anyone younger than 18.
Currently, these proposals exist only as a consultation document, and won’t be voted on for another month and a half, but others have already zeroed in on an unusual set of restrictions the ICO calls “nudge techniques.” The bulk of this section pertains to sites and services which use “dark patterns” that graphically present one option as more obvious and enticing than the other, or otherwise make things unnecessarily onerous. Here’s an example I recently came across when trying to cancel a free trial to the WWE Network:
Truthfully, this sort of hostile UI should probably be banned everywhere, since it’s one and only purpose is to cause users to act contrary to their interests.
But the more unusual portion of this guideline is a standalone paragraph that states:
Reward loops or positive reinforcement techniques (such as likes and streaks) can also nudge or encourage users to stay actively engaged with a service, allowing the online service to collect more personal data.
A like-less Facebook has been the focus of the majority of coverage on this seemingly throwaway line, but given the wide swath of services that the ICO is targeting here the fallout is potentially massive. Most platforms use some form of “like,” whether it’s a thumbs up, Twitter’s heart, upvotes on Reddit, or even the stars below this article in Kinja’s comments. Some mobile games have login bonuses. Any site with comments has the potential to have those comments replied to. Notifications in and of themselves are a type of engagement tool that rewards the brain, thereby increasing the use of whatever service pings for our attention.
The grim truth is that our use of the internet is so tied to these sorts of schemes that, to be enforceable, ICO would likely force most online services to build unrecognizable and potentially non-functional versions of themselves for kids to use. That or lawmakers would need to be a lot more specific about what sorts of behaviors they’re trying to curtail here.
As stated, these guidelines haven’t passed into law yet—and they might not ever get there in this present form. But given the EU’s general bullishness on regulating an internet run amok, it is also within the realm of possibility that the ICO will create a massive headache for online entities.