AEPD report on the influence of addictive patterns on the Internet

The Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD) has presented a report that analyses how the processing of users’ personal data on numerous platforms, applications and services includes addictive patterns to increase their connection time.

AEPD report on internet addiction patterns of minors_img

This presentation took place during the course New challenges for the protection of people’s rights in the face of the impact of the Internet, part of the Summer Activities 2024 of the Menéndez Pelayo International University (UIMP) in Santander.
He report It highlights how, in many cases, these providers implement Deceptive and addictive design patterns to prolong time users to remain on their services or to increase their level of commitment and the amount of personal data collected about them. The adverse impact of addictive strategies is considerably greater when they are used to treat Personal data of vulnerable people, such as children and adolescentsinfluencing the preferences and interests of minors and ultimately affecting their autonomy and their right to development.

The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) addressed deceptive patterns in its Guidelines 03/2022 on deceptive design patterns in social media platform interfaces: how to recognise and avoid them. In the report, the Agency has carried out a review of the existing scientific evidence on addictive patterns on different platforms, applications and services (social networks, but also video or music platforms, adult content platforms, games, learning environments, health and wellness applications, etc.), which means addressing, from a complementary perspective, new use cases.

On the other hand, the Digital Services Regulationknown as the Digital Services Act (DSA), establishes in its section 25 that online platforms will not design, organize or manage their interfaces in a way that deceives or manipulates users, or in a way that distorts or hinders their ability to make free and informed decisions.

The Director of the Agency, Mar Spainannounced during the presentation of the report that the AEPD will promote that the CEPD includes addictive patterns in the guidelines that are being prepared on the interrelation between the General Data Protection Regulation and the DSA, due to the high impact that these practices have on the Right to data protection in digital environments.

The Agency’s report shows how the processing of users’ personal data includes specific operations, all of them deceptive, in order to influence their decisions and to use their personal data for this purpose or to generate new data and perform profiling (called targeting in this document, since it allows for the detailed personalisation of addictive strategies).

The document makes a Classification of addictive patterns into three levels: high, medium and low. The so-called high-level patterns are general strategies independent of context and application, and four have been identified: forced action, social engineering, interface interference and persistence. The medium-level patterns describe more specific approaches that exploit users’ psychological weaknesses or vulnerabilities. Finally, the low-level patterns correspond to the specific execution of the different approaches and are often context- or application-specific.

The incorporation of addictive patterns into the processing of personal data has important implications for the protection of user data, such as proactive responsibility, the effective application of data protection obligations by design and by default, transparency, legality, loyalty, purpose limitation, data minimization, or the processing of special categories of data. It also implies a risk to the rights and freedoms of all users and, in particular, to the right to physical and mental integrity of children and adolescents.

Procedures opened by the European Commission

In relation to addictive patterns, the European Commission has two open sanctioning procedures for possible non-compliance with the aforementioned DSA (Digital Services Regulation), against TikTok and against Meta. This is in addition to the suspension of TikTok Lite announced by the company itself after the Commission made public its intention to impose provisional measures suspending the function that financially rewarded additional screen time.

In Spain, the Agency will continue to collaborate within the framework of its powers with the National Commission on Markets and Competition (CNMC), the body designated as the national Coordinator of Digital Services.

You can see here the report.

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