When politicians play web designers

By Lea Kissner and Stephanie Thien Hang Nguyen

Privacy problems are age-old. The extravagant Sun King, Louis XIV of France, popularized the envelope as he used them to protect his letters from the prying eyes of the chambermaid or shopkeeper. In the colonial era, adhesive envelopes and patterned lining helped hide the contents of commonly intercepted mail. Along with increased regulation, these efforts created more friction against snooping and made privacy more tangible.

Centuries later, invisible, untouchable, and omnipresent information about us now spreads across databases, from internet browsers to doctors’ offices. Just as the envelope was a design solution intended to prevent people from reading each other's mail, the creators of data systems have turned to design to solve privacy challenges.

Politicians, however, have turned to regulation. Many regulatory proposals have focused on suppressing dark patterns, which are design tricks that push you the user to do things you didn't intend to, like subscribing to newsletters or paying for extra services. In April, senators Mark Warner of Virginia and Deb Fischer of Nebraska introduced a bill to ban many of these features, such as LinkedIn’s “Add connection” button (which harvests email addresses and grows LinkedIn’s member base) and Venmo’s default public setting. In July, another senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, introduced legislation to ban “addictive” and “deceptive” features like Instagram and Facebook’s infinite scroll and YouTube’s autoplay.

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