Lina Khan was hauled before the House Judiciary Committee one morning in mid-July to discuss a favorite Republican topic of the moment: the 34-year-old chair’s supposed mishandling of the Federal Trade Commission and its $430 million budget.
Seated at the sprawling witness table next to a bevy of Deer Park water bottles—a sign of the long day she was about to endure—Khan was eager to discuss something seemingly more pedestrian: the user interface design choices of The Walt Disney Company, and the five bucks a month such designs might unfairly cost a customer.
“I had a bundle with Disney, Hulu and ESPN,” drawled Steve Cohen, a 74-year-old Democratic Congressman from Tennessee. But after attempting to get out of the bundle “and just do Hulu,” Cohen had “given up. I’ve just tried to cancel, and it’s just too much.” The exasperated lawmaker waved his hand around the Rayburn House Office Building dais: “It should be easy.”
Khan seized the moment. “That’s right. And we’ve also seen through our work that companies sometimes use what are known as”—here she curled her hands into air quotes—“dark patterns.” These, she explained, are manipulative design techniques meant to con people into paying for services they don’t want. Such tactics, which researchers sometimes refer to as drip pricing, confirm shaming and roach moteling, “are very much on our radar,” said Khan.