Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

Dark Patterns, The Ratchet

A dark pattern in the design world means something that is purposefully created to mislead users and to get them to perform actions against their own interest.

Since we are supposedly required to consent to giving up our privacy there has developed a cottage industry of entities doing everythign they can to obey the letter of the law while at the same time ignoring the spirit of it, or in fact turning the law on its head. Consent forms are the norm, picture your typical consent form as a very large chunk of barely legible text with a bright orange ‘Yes, give me that benefit’, and another one (much less inviting looking) saying ‘no thanks, I won’t consent’.

If that were it, then maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. But that’s really only the beginning. A good chunk of the consent forms is missing that second option, your only alternative is to figure out how to close the damn dialog without accidentally clicking the button. An even nastier version employs what I call ‘The Ratchet’. Instead of saying ‘no, no consent’ the other button will say something like ‘not now’. Just like a toddler that you tell no, no cookie the toddler will iterpret the no as ‘not now’, making it ok to ask again. 30 seconds later.

And this will continue until one day you either out of sheer frustration or by accident click ‘Yes, give me that benefit’. And instantly all memory of the consent obtained will be forgotten. There is no way back. That ‘click’ of your mouse (or tap of the finger) was the ratchet advancing one little step. Good luck finding the permission you have just about irrevocably changed in a mountain of convolution designed to lead you astray in your quest to undo your action.

Of course it would be trivial to have a log of recently given permissions and an ‘undo’ option for each of those. But there is no money in there and so you won’t find it. The ratchet has clicked and that’s all that matters, you ‘gave your consent’, time to move on. And so the company gets to claim that not only did you give your consent, you gave it willingly and obviously they would have never ever used your data without that consent.

The cumulative effect of all those little ratchets on your privacy is rather terrible, but there is no denying it: you were along for the ride and you had the option to ‘opt out’ at every step. Not just from that one dialogue: from all of them by refusing to use products that are fielded by companies that engage in these unethical practices. Say no to ‘The Ratchet’ and it’s sick family of dark patterns designed to little-by-little chip away at your privacy, kick products and companies like that to the kerb where they belong. That’s the only way to really opt out.