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Senate measure would control how social media companies access user data

The bill aims to stop the use of ‘dark pattern’ apps and website designs

Photo (c) Urupong - Getty Images
Amid growing concern in Washington about the power of social media companies, the Senate may consider a bipartisan bill to severely limit how these companies gain access to users’ private information.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. Deb Fisher (R-Neb.) have co-sponsored the Deceptive Experiences To Online Users Reduction (DETOUR) Act, which would place limits on how social media companies interact with users.

The two lawmakers contend that companies such as Facebook employ deceptive user interfaces, known as “dark patterns,” to trick consumers into providing access to their personal data.

Psychological research

Warner claims companies spend heavily on psychological research to learn how to design websites and apps so that users will make decisions -- such as giving access to their photos, contacts, etc. -- that they might not make otherwise.

These design tactics are what’s known as “dark patterns” because they are manipulative and not clear and conspicuous. Warner says these formats are used to mislead consumers into adopting platform settings that are highly profitable for the companies using them.

“For years, social media platforms have been relying on all sorts of tricks and tools to convince users to hand over their personal data without really understanding what they are consenting to,” Warner said. “Some of the most nefarious strategies rely on ‘dark patterns’ – deceptive interfaces and default settings, drawing on tricks of behavioral psychology, designed to undermine user autonomy and push consumers into doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do, like hand over all of their personal data to be exploited for commercial purposes.”

Warner knows something about the practice. He is a former executive in the technology industry and the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

‘A little transparency’

“Our goal is simple: to instill a little transparency in what remains a very opaque market and ensure that consumers are able to make more informed choices about how and when to share their personal information,” Warner said.

The measure was introduced just ahead of the one-year anniversary of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg’s appearance before Congress, where he was grilled about Facebook’s privacy policies.

The bill is just the latest Congressional salvo fired against “big tech.” Last month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced a bill to break up the large technology companies. In addition to dealing with privacy issues, Warren said  breaking up tech giants such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google will pave the way for the next generation of great U.S. tech companies to “flourish.”

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