Consumer Groups Ask FTC to Investigate Amazon Prime’s Cancellation Process

Consumer Groups Ask FTC to Investigate Amazon Prime’s Cancellation Process
Photo: Edward Smith, Getty Images

It’s too goddamn hard to cancel your Amazon Prime account, a group of consumer advocacy organisations have told the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in a complaint letter.

In the document, addressed to FTC chairman Joe Simons, groups led by the nonprofit Public Citizen asked that the agency investigate Amazon under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which bars “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.” The groups also asked for the FTC to investigate whether Amazon’s convoluted cancellation process violates the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (ROSCA), which mandates “simple mechanisms” to terminate recurring charges, and the CAN-SPAM Act, which bars deceptive subject headings.

A video released this week by the Norwegian Consumer Council, a government agency of Norway that signed onto the letter, demonstrates what it says is a clear example of “dark patterns” — techniques used by websites and apps to trick or mislead a user into choosing the action preferred by a developer. Ending a Prime membership requires:

  • clicking into Account Settings
  • locating the Prime membership submenu
  • clicking a button titled “manage membership”
  • clicking “end membership”
  • scrolling through a list of benefits
  • selecting “cancel my benefits” from another set of options
  • navigating past another screen asking users to switch to an annual payment model
  • clicking “Continue to Cancel” from another set of options
  • and then landing on a page that says Amazon is sorry to see the user go

That screen presents multiple options including “remind me later,” “keep my membership,” “pause” a membership, and finally at the bottom, the correct option to cancel.

Amazon also warns users during the process that “items tied to your Prime membership will be affected,” which is vague enough to suggest prior purchases could be delayed, cancelled, or otherwise altered. (Amazon can’t, for example, back-charge shipping fees, demand customers return items, or delay orders already placed.)

Each step is clearly designed to obfuscate how to cancel a membership, redirect users to other parts of the Amazon website, or simply irritate them into deciding to cancel later.

Amazon Prime is one of a number of services that profits from how the proliferation of auto-renewing online subscription services makes it hard for consumers to keep track of what they’re actually spending money on, the groups argue in the letter. While navigating the Amazon cancellation process may only take a few minutes — assuming one knows where the options are in the first place — that extra inconvenience might cause the consumer to delay their cancellation decision and forget about it until more bills roll in. Each of these minor inconveniences adds up over time, plumping up profit for the subscription services.

Amazon’s use of warnings “misdirects consumers and challenges their choices through negatively charged statements intended to discourage users from attempting to stop paying for the service,” the letter claims, and the confusing array of buttons constitutes “visual interference.” Amazon also changes up language (“end membership” becomes “cancel my benefits”) throughout the process, possibly confusing users as to which button to hit to continue cancelling.

“With an increasing number of online platforms reaching high levels of popularity among consumers, and a variety of free trial subscriptions lowering the cost of entry, consumers are signing up for ever-more services and the prospect of keeping track of every service becomes complicated,” the groups wrote in the letter. “In short, it is very easy to sign up for services, but cancelling subscriptions can be challenging by design.”

The Norwegian agency wrote in a separate report released this week that the nation’s consumers tend to let themselves keep paying for services they aren’t using despite racking up average digital content service bills of $US46 ($59) per month. That is probably in large part thanks to all that inconvenience built into products, according to the report:

As another part of this work, we conducted a survey in autumn 2020 of 1,000 consumers in Norway… Almost half of the respondents said that they probably or definitely pay for at least one service they do not use often enough to justify the subscription. Furthermore, around 25% of respondents had experienced problems cancelling a digital subscription because they found the process difficult and/or frustrating. These numbers confirm that, while consumers generally have several digital content subscriptions, these subscriptions are often left running without being used.

… This becomes a problem if the consumer is tricked into continuous subscriptions that they do not want to continue because the bar for discontinuing the service is unreasonably high. As a rule, it should not be more difficult to unsubscribe from a service than it was to subscribe in the first place.

TechCrunch reported that Germany’s VZBZ consumer protection agency, is also investigating the process to unsubscribe for Prime. Its parent organisation, the Federation of German Consumer Organisations, has the power to issue legal threats and launch compliance lawsuits on its own without going to regulators.

“Amazon makes it clear and easy for Prime members to cancel their subscription at any time, whether through a few clicks online, a quick phone call or by turning off auto renew in their membership option,” Amazon told TechCrunch in a statement. “Customer trust is at the heart of all of our products and services and we reject the claim that our cancellation process is unfair or creates uncertainty.”

According to Bloomberg, while complaints typically make it little farther than the FTC’s trash can, letter co-signatory the Centre for Digital Democracy has previously managed to sway the agency’s course during an investigation into the collection of child viewers’ data on YouTube. Amazon is also facing a major antitrust investigation in Congress and a competition probe by the FTC that could expand under inbound President Joe Biden’s administration.

In 2019, U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Deb Fischer co-introduced legislation that would have made it illegal for firms with over 100 million active monthly users to “design, modify, or manipulate a user interface with the purpose or substantial effect of obscuring, subverting, or impairing user autonomy, decision-making, or choice to obtain consent or user data.” Titled the Deceptive Experiences To Online Users Reduction (DETOUR) Act, it went nowhere but key provisions were later integrated into a larger US tech regulation bill, the SAFE DATA Act. That bill could be passed by the next US Congress, with both the House and Senate under Democratic control.