Someone at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has had it with free trials that turn out not to be so free months later. The federal agency thought that the online signup for Amazon Prime was so shady it conducted an official inquiry into it.
The ecommerce giant is facing the FTC’s scrutiny over its use of “dark patterns”—manipulative online interface tricks—that supposedly lured users into signing up for costly Prime memberships without their overt knowledge.
Amazon has been persuasive in promoting Prime, perhaps too much so. Federal investigators have spent the past several years looking into the tech giant’s UX/UI choices in response to ongoing reports that consumers have felt tricked into Prime enrollment via the company’s design choices.
One of those design choices should be familiar to anyone who has used the tech giant’s services: by merely clicking “Get FREE Two-Day Delivery with Prime” during the checkout process, a user gets roped into a 30-day free-trial with Prime—which will default into a paid one (the current annual subscription price is a nice, fat $139). This is such a simple, painless enrollment process that, in the past, many people appear not to have realized they were enrolled until they saw their first bill in the mail. Amazon has been sued previously on related grounds.
Prime—that glistening subscription service that throws underpaid workers under the bus to bring you discounted junk and breakneck delivery times—is a really big deal for Amazon, and the company has gone to extreme lengths to secure new members and keep them subscribed, Insider reports.
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At the same time that Amazon has made the Prime sign-up process deceptively easy, it has also made its membership cancellation process excessively hard, even in the eyes of its own employees, Insider reports. Internal documents viewed by the outlet reveal a corporate project dubbed “Illiad,” which erected barriers in the way of any Prime member who wished to discontinue their subscriptions. The program may have worked, too: cancellations dropped by 14 percent at one point in 2017, not long after the program was implemented.
To top it all off, Amazon has reportedly known for years that it was tricking people with its subscription sign-up practices but has done little to change its ways. Internal documents viewed by Insider show that, since as far back as 2017, customer-focused teams at Amazon have repeatedly come up with ways to make sign-up practices less deceptive, but that these solutions have largely not been implemented.
It’s unclear what the status of the FTC’s investigation into Amazon’s subscription practices is, Insider reports. We reached out to the FTC for comment and will update this story if they respond.
When asked by Gizmodo about Insider’s piece, VP of Amazon Prime Jamil Ghani defended the subscription design choices, calling them “simple and transparent,” and waxing philosophical about the company’s commitment to its customers: “Customer transparency and trust are top priorities for us. By design we make it clear and simple for customers to both sign up for or cancel their Prime membership,” said Ghani. “We continually listen to our customer feedback and look for ways to improve the customer experience.”