The instantaneous relief of unsubscribing is difficult to put into words. It ranks alongside the ecstasy of popping the perfect pimple, the rush of unleashing a furtive ingrown or (however briefly) achieving the coveted Inbox Zero. 😙
See what I did there?
Often we (easily) unsubscribe from mailing lists or newsletters thanks to CASL legislation from 2014. Even those little emails are micro commitments that we can shed, reducing a barrage of inbound key messaging and streamlining our digital lives. Yet as we try to declutter our inboxes, consumers are becoming ever more ensnared in the relentless subscription economy that locks them into monthly or annual fees for things like printer ink. The growth of this guaranteed recurring revenue business model introduces two new problems for policy people to tackle: deceptive dark patterns and the role of regulators to ensure ease of unsubscribing, and the incremental erosion of the ability to own physical products outright.
The first issue is the asymmetry between the ease of subscribing with one click and the various roadblocks faced when terminating the resulting contract, design to intentionally waste time and money. Deceptive Design characterises this pattern as a “roach motel” - a situation that is easy to get into but difficult to get out of. Amazon’s account cancellation process has been specifically called out as exemplifying this trick, as users must navigate a lengthy maze in their attempt to cancel their account, meeting dead ends and eventually having to chat online with or call an Amazon associate to pursue termination. This is a substandard user experience that intentionally makes it difficult to complete an action that hurts Amazon’s bottom line. Both the Boston Globe and Spotify have been criticised for having difficult to cancel subscription workflows, the Toronto Star requires a phone call and Noom has even been sued over their use of this disorienting strategy.
The FTC recently announced that they would be ramping up enforcement against illegal dark patterns that trick or trap consumers into subscriptions. In Canada, the Competition Bureau enforces against dark patterns across both civil and criminal law under legislation that governs deceptive representations to the public. Criminally, it is section 52 of the Competition Act and on the civil side, it’s section 74. But we aren’t having a compelling national conversation about subscription traps to create better awareness about them. We should take more care to better protect consumers from these infuriating practices.
Authorities could better educate citizens about the deceptive tactics of digital dark patterns and require that processes to unsubscribe mirror the ease of subscription. We could also crowdsource circumventive examples to more directly engage Canadians in the work of identifying and improving these processes. For instance, Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab hosts a “Tip Line” where individuals can submit their sightings of dark patterns online that we could emulate. This would be more productive than relying on other regulators or researchers to do our homework for us.
The second issue that the growth of the subscription economy raises is the fundamental loss of the ability to own certain products outright because the associated digital layer is prescribed in monthly perpetuity or proprietary to the issuing firm, like books on your Kindle. Examples of this arrangement include Peloton, Microsoft Word, and the dystopian scenario described in Cory Doctorow’s novella “Unauthorized Bread.” In the same way citizens should have an analog option when a government service is primarily provided digitally, we could take steps to ensure that there is an option to own a product outright under appropriate constraints.
There are many instances where a subscription makes sense as the dominant mechanism to engage with a firm - like newspapers and magazines, or gym memberships. But other commodification makes less sense, whether it’s a monthly box shipped to your front door like Dollar Shave Club or Birchbox, or the robotic ball Sphero.
Columnist Ethan Lou recently documented our subscription overload in the Globe and Mail offering many of the examples cited above. He differentiates between physical products and the software those products use, which is increasingly rented. Mandating software interoperability between these products, coupled with the ability to own the physical product outright, would be a helpful way to promote consumer choice and evade the entrapment inherent in the machinery of subscription. We should explicitly differentiate between the product and the service in seeking to enshrine the option of ownership. Lou advocates that, “for every software subscription a company sells, it should also offer an own-for-life alternative.” Amen.
Erica Alini also point to subscriptions from the perspective of ‘micropayments.’
Policy people addressed subscriptions once already, ensuring that we don’t get swept up into mailing list mayhem without first securing explicit consent. While the rationale for this intervention was a concern for privacy, subscriptions are fleecing consumers in new ways. Now we need to do more to support consumers who are forced to waste time jumping through hoops to terminate agreements that have recurring payment obligations. We also need to deeply consider whether there is an appropriate organising principle to ensure a fair ownership option for consumers that are increasingly being nudged towards monthly rentals (subscriptions). This could keep more money in people’s pockets, and help to curb their exploitation. Let’s stop paying every month for this treadmill and unsubscribe from the dumbest parts of the subscription economy ASAP.
I wrote about how the arguments against the Competition Bureau being more public about prospective/preliminary investigations sort of fall apart in a global context. 👇
⭐ Recall that in 1992, the federal government came up w/ a policy (updated in 2017) on foreign investment in book publishing, retail + distribution, which requires the Minister of Canadian Heritage to review ALL indirect foreign acquisitions to ensure they provide net benefits to Canada. So it’s reasonable to expect comment from Heritage on the ‘benefits’ of this merger for our publishing industry.
Yes, unsubbing is totally ecstatic! And Inbox Zero is the ultimate bliss. But never pop a pimple! That's where scars come from. Let that white head form, it has a purpose, let it do its job, and your skin will thank you for it!!!