The Federal Trade Commission sued Amazon on Wednesday, accusing the tech and retail giant of deceiving customers into subscribing to Amazon Prime, then convoluting the process to cancel their subscriptions.
“For years, Defendant Amazon.com, Inc. has knowingly duped millions of consumers into unknowingly enrolling in its Amazon Prime service,” the FTC alleged in its suit, reviewed by Rolling Stone and filed in the U.S. District Court’s Western District of Washington. “Specifically, Amazon used manipulative, coercive, or deceptive user-interface designs known as “dark patterns” to trick consumers into enrolling in automatically-renewing Prime subscriptions.”
Stating that “the primary goal of Prime is increasing subscriber numbers,” the FTC claimed that those dark patterns from Amazon made it harder for customers to make purchases on the site without also getting a Prime subscription, and that when buying a product, it’s easier to find buttons to subscribe to Prime than to decline the subscription offers and finish a purchase.
The FTC also claimed Amazon made it difficult to cancel a subscription. The FTC alleged in the suit that Amazon internally called its cancellation process “Iliad,” which the agency said referred to the literary classic about “the long, arduous Trojan War.” The FTC described cancellations as a “four-page, six-click, 15-option process.” Under pressure from the agency, the FTC said, Amazon had changed the cancellation process for some customers in April, two months before the FTC complaint was filed. But that “for years, Amazon also knowingly complicated the cancellation process for Prime subscribers who sought to end their membership.”
“The primary purpose of the Prime cancellation process was not to enable subscribers to cancel, but rather to thwart them,” the FTC said.
A spokesperson for Amazon denied the allegations in a statement, saying that the FTC’s allegations “are false on the facts and the law.”
“As with all our products and services, we continually listen to customer feedback and look for ways to improve the customer experience, and we look forward to the facts becoming clear as this case plays out,” the spokesperson said. “We also find it concerning that the FTC announced this lawsuit without notice to us, in the midst of our discussions with FTC staff members to ensure they understand the facts, context, and legal issues, and before we were able to have a dialog with the Commissioners themselves before they filed a lawsuit. While the absence of that normal course engagement is extremely disappointing, we look forward to proving our case in court.”
This isn’t the first time the FTC has taken action against the company; at the end of May, Amazon settled with the FTC and the Department of Justice for $25 million over claims that the company was keeping children’s data through its Alexa devices.
The new suit marks the first against Amazon for FTC Chair Lina Khan, who has been building up a reputation for taking on antitrust concerns against major tech companies since she was appointed to run the organization in 2021. “Amazon tricked and trapped people into recurring subscriptions without their consent, not only frustrating users but also costing them significant money,” Khan said in a statement at the time. “These manipulative tactics harm consumers and law-abiding businesses alike.”