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GPEN Sweep Finds Majority Of Websites And Mobile Apps Use Deceptive Design To Influence Privacy Choices

The Gibraltar Regulatory Authority, as the Information Commissioner, has taken part in the annual Global Privacy Enforcement Network Sweep (GPEN Sweep). 

A statement from the GRA follows below:

GPEN was established in 2010 upon recommendation by the Organisation  for Economic Co-operation and Development (the “OECD”). In an increasingly global  market, GPEN aims to foster cross-border co-operation among privacy regulators.  Members seek to work together to strengthen personal privacy protections in this  global context. 

The GPEN Sweep saw 26 privacy enforcement authorities from across the world come  together to participate. They collectively reviewed more than 1,000 websites and  mobile applications and found that nearly all of them employed one or more deceptive  design pattern(s) that made it difficult for users to make privacy-protective decisions. 

Deceptive design patterns use features that steer users towards options that may  result in the collection of more of their personal data. These patterns may also force  users to take multiple steps to find a privacy policy, log out, or delete their account,  or present them with repetitive prompts aimed at frustrating them and ultimately  pushing them to give up more of their personal data than they would like. 

For the first time, the GPEN Sweep was coordinated with the International Consumer  Protection and Enforcement Network (the “ICPEN”), which represents consumer  protection authorities.  

The collaboration recognises the growing intersection between privacy and other  regulatory spheres. In the case of deceptive design patterns, it was clear to both  privacy and consumer protection sweepers that many websites and apps employ  techniques that interfere with individuals’ ability to make choices that best protect their  privacy or consumer rights.  

Both GPEN and ICPEN, who are working together to improve privacy and consumer  protection for individuals around the world, published reports today outlining their  findings. 

Global Findings 

Those involved in the GPEN Sweep replicated the user experience by engaging with  websites and apps to assess the ease with which they could make privacy choices,  obtain privacy information, and log out of or delete an account. 

Sweepers evaluated the sites and apps based on five indicators identified by the OECD,  as being characteristic of deceptive design patterns. 

For each indicator, the GPEN Sweep found: 

  • Complex and confusing language: More than 89% of privacy policies were  found to be long or use complex language suited for those with a university  education. 
  • Interface interference: When asking users to make privacy choices, 42% of  websites and apps swept used emotionally charged language to influence user  decisions, while 57% made the least privacy protective option the most obvious and easiest for users to select. 
  • Nagging: 35% of websites and apps repeatedly asked users to reconsider  their intention to delete their account. 
  • Obstruction: In nearly 40% of cases, sweepers faced obstacles making  privacy choices or accessing privacy information, such as trying to find privacy  settings or delete their account. 
  • Forced action: 9% of websites and apps forced users to disclose more  personal data when trying to delete their account than they had to provide  when they opened it.  

The GPEN Sweep was not an investigation, nor was it intended to generate formal  findings regarding confirmed violations of privacy legislation. However, as in previous  years, concerns identified could not only result in follow-up work such as outreach to  organisations but may also lead to the initiation of enforcement action to address  identified concerns.  

GPEN encourages organisations to design their platforms, including associated privacy  communications and choices, in a manner that supports users in making informed  privacy choices that reflect their preferences. Good design includes default settings  that best protect privacy; an emphasis on privacy options; neutral language and design  to present privacy choices in a fair and transparent manner; fewer clicks to find privacy  information, log out, or delete an account; and ‘just-in-time’ contextually relevant  consent options. 

By offering users online experiences that are free from influence, manipulation, and  coercion, organisations can build user trust and make privacy a competitive advantage.