A coalition of public interest advocates is asking U.S. regulators to investigate whether Amazon.com violates consumer protection laws with its process for canceling Prime subscriptions.
In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission on Thursday, a group led by Public Citizen said the steps required to cancel Prime “are designed to unfairly and deceptively undermine the will of the consumer,” and may violate FTC rules as well as other consumer protection laws. The letter draws on a complaint by Norway’s consumer protection agency, which on Thursday asked Norwegian regulators to determine whether Amazon violated local law.
Amazon makes it “clear and easy” to cancel Prime online, by phone, or by opting out of automatic renewal, said a spokesperson for the Seattle-based company. “Customer trust is at the heart of all of our products and services, and we strongly disagree with any claim that our cancellation process creates uncertainty,” the spokesperson said in an email. “The information we provide in the online cancellation flow gives a full view of the benefits and services members are canceling.”
A spokesperson for the FTC didn’t immediately comment. Prime, which costs $119 a year in the U.S., offers quick shipping, video streaming, and other perks, and it has been a major catalyst for Amazon’s growth into the world’s largest online retailer.
The report by Forbrukerrådet, Norway’s state-backed consumer protection agency, documents how Amazon riddles the process with “dark patterns,” or manipulative techniques, including steps that nestle the choice to leave in between other options to abort the whole process or maintain their membership. The group also produced a video that demonstrates how a user who wants to cancel Prime might accidentally click buttons that actually keep them in the program.
While complaints routinely land at the FTC with little action, at least one of the parties involved in Thursday’s letter, the Center for Digital Democracy, has been able to push commissioners in the past. Republican FTC Chairman Joe Simons is also expected to step down, and President-elect Joe Biden could replace him with a Democrat who would likely be open to a broader interpretation of the consumer protection mandate.
Amazon’s market power is already the subject of a lengthy congressional antitrust investigation, as well as probes by the FTC and European Commission, among other regulators.