100 days of the Digital Services Act: consumer protection on online platforms still insufficient

vzbv: The large online platforms that were assessed do not adequately implement consumer protection regulations

  • All assessed platform providers continue to use dark patterns (manipulative design tricks).
  • Advertising criteria are not transparent.
  • German Federal Government must ensure effective national supervision for online platforms.
Online-Händler wie Amazon müssen ihre Kontaktdaten leicht zugänglich auf ihrer Webseite präsentieren

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For more than 100 days now, large online platforms and search engines, such as Google Search, Amazon, and TikTok, have had to implement regulations from the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA). The goals include protecting consumers more effectively against online manipulation, and making terms of use easier to understand. The Federation of German Consumer Organisations (Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband e.V. – vzbv) already examined the companies in August, when the Act took effect, and identified problems. A follow-up analysis shows that the platforms in question are not properly implementing the rules.

“In many areas, consumers are still exposed to the unfair practices of large online platforms. To date, the providers have failed to adequately implement the laws,”

says Ramona Pop, Executive Director of vzbv. “Our investigation clearly shows that to guarantee genuine consumer protection the German Federal Government needs to establish centralised and effective supervision of all online platforms.” vzbv will continue to monitor implementation of the DSA and report its findings to the responsible supervisory authority.

Dark patterns: manipulative design tricks still a major problem

Since August 2023, very large online platform providers are not permitted to use design tricks to exploit typical human behaviour or perception patterns. Examples include the colour design of buttons or requiring numerous clicks to complete an action. vzbv’s investigation shows that Amazon, Booking.com, Google Shopping, and YouTube continue to use such prohibited dark patterns. “Consumer complaints repeatedly demonstrate that people feel manipulated, confused, and fooled by design tricks on online platforms,” says Ramona Pop. “The way companies stubbornly continue to ignore applicable laws or implement them only half-heartedly is truly astonishing. It is high time that consumers receive proper protection against non-transparent business models and dark patterns.”

Lack of transparency regarding advertising criteria

Large online platforms are also obliged to inform consumers about advertising criteria in an easily comprehensible and accessible way. Consumers must be able to access this information by clicking on the advertisement. vzbv’s investigation shows that, to date, none of the assessed providers fulfil this obligation. vzbv assessed Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and X/Twitter.

However, all the providers in question have at least labelled relevant content as advertising and named the respective advertisers.

Points of contact, GTC information, and options for recommender systems often hard to find

Clearly, in many areas the regulations are not being implemented with sufficient transparency. Consumers must have straightforward access to single points of contact, information about general terms and conditions (GTCs), and options for recommender systems. Some of the assessed providers fail to meet this requirement.

Users can now find a contact option at Apple App Store, Facebook, and TikTok. However, in vzbv’s view, finding this information is rather difficult.

In some cases, GTCs were also difficult to find and did not always contain obligatory information, for example about internal complaint handling systems. vzbv assessed the GTCs of the Booking.com and Google Search websites as well as of the TikTok and X/Twitter apps – which in some cases stretched to more than 50 A4 pages.

The situation regarding recommender and ranking systems is similar. Service provides are obliged to state clearly which criteria they use for recommendations and ranking. Consumers must be able to adjust these parameters. vzbv found that all assessed providers have improved their service in this respect: Amazon, Booking.com, Google Search, and Zalando now offer an option that is not based on profiling. However, in many cases profiling continues to be activated as a default setting. In vzbv’s view, the option to deactivate is often hard to find.

Making complaints via the Consumer Associations

Consumers who encounter problems while using very large online platforms and search engines can inform the German Consumer Associations of their experiences and complaints via the following link: Complaint form

Background and methodology

vzbv analysed how twelve very large online platforms and search engines are implementing the new Digital Services Act (DSA). The providers in question are: Amazon,

Apple App Store, Booking.com, Facebook, Google Shopping, Google Search, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, X (previously Twitter), YouTube, and Zalando. vzbv made a random selection as to which aspect it would investigate with respect to each of the 12 providers.

The evaluation focused on Article 14 (GTCs), Article 25 (online interfaces/dark patterns), and Article 26 Paragraphs 1 and 2 (transparency about advertising). Following an initial assessment in August 2023, vzbv also looked again at the implementation of Article 12 (Points of contact) and Article 27 in connection with Article 38 (Recommender systems).

The service providers in question belong to the group of “very large online platforms” (VLOP) and/or “very large online search engines” (VLOSE) that the European Commission defined as such on 25 April 2023. The DSA applies to them as of 25 August 2023.

The evaluation took place on the basis of the available information on the companies’ websites or on the iOS apps, and vzbv assessed the results using a system of categories based on the legal rules. vzbv evaluated the providers between 12 October and 17 November 2023.

Update 07.12.2023: The first publication of this investigation stated that Snapchat does not label ads. This finding was incorrect and has been corrected accordingly. According to its own statement, Snapchat labels content as advertising and identifies the advertiser and the advertising parameters.

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Evaluation: 100 Days of the DSA

Evaluation of the Federation of German Consumer Organisations (Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband – vzbv) | 7 December 2023

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