A SMART idea?
A US senator wants to ban addictive design. Josh Hawley’s proposed SMART Act (American lawmakers love retronyms to a grating degree — this is the ‘Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology’ Act) would target technology designed to stop users from putting their damn phones down.
As the Verge reports
, it would also target dark patterns, those deceptive design practices, like when a 'cancel’ button is far less prominent than a button that will charge your credit card a bunch of cash:
“Big tech has embraced a business model of addiction,” Hawley said. “Too much of the ‘innovation’ in this space is designed not to create better products, but to capture more attention by using psychological tricks that make it difficult to look away.”
Deceptive design played an enormous part in last week’s FTC settlement with Facebook, and Hawley’s bill would make it unlawful for tech companies to use dark patterns to manipulate users into opting into services. For example, “accept” and “decline” checkboxes would need to be the same font, format, and size to help users make better, more informed choices.
There’s something to be said for forcing tech companies to stop designing overly addictive or deceptive products, but it’s a difficult balancing act.
The Verge says things like auto-playing videos and endlessly scrolling websites would be included in the act. While YouTube might keep some people staring at their screens far longer than is healthy by playing an endless chain of videos when you only asked for one, this can also be a convenience if you just want to relax with some videos and also have the self-control to press 'stop’ after a while.
Just like a kitchen knife can just as easily help you make a salad or commit a murder, design can be good or bad depending on the user and the context. Any law that addresses addictive design will need to take that into account or risk needlessly restricting innovation and creativity. Legislation with nuance? Now that would be 'SMART.’