Is This the End of Publishers Saying Click to Subscribe, Call to Cancel?

From a post on by Sarah Scire headlined “The end of ‘click to subscribe, call to cancel’? One of the news industry’s favorite retention tactics is illegal, FTC says”:

Discovering they had to get on the phone to cancel a subscription they signed up for online rankled respondents in our survey looking at why people canceled their news subscriptions. The reaction to the call-to-cancel policy ranged from “an annoyance” and “ridiculous” to “shady” and “oppressive.”

Publishers tend to think of this as “retention.” A study of 526 news organizations found that only 41% make it easy for people to cancel subscriptions online, and more than half trained customer service reps in tactics to dissuade customers who call to unsubscribe.

The Federal Trade Commission recently made it clear that it sees the practice as 1) one of several “dark patterns that trick or trap consumers into subscriptions” and 2) straight-up illegal. The FTC vowed to ramp up enforcement on companies that fail to provide an “easy and simple” cancellation process, including an option that’s “at least as easy” as the one to subscribe….

The new guidelines around “negative option marketing” — which includes everything from automatic renewals to free trials that convert to paid subscriptions if consumers take no action — go beyond mandating that companies offer straightforward cancellation.

Companies, including news companies, must make “clear and conspicuous” disclosures, including “each deadline by which the consumer must act in order to stop the charges,” “the amount (or range of costs) the consumer will be charged or billed,” and “all information necessary to cancel the contract.” And customer service reps will have to keep new guidelines in mind: “In implementing effective cancellation procedures, marketers should not, among other things: hang up on consumers who call to cancel; place them on hold for an unreasonably long time; provide false information about how to cancel; or misrepresent the reasons for delays in processing consumers’ cancellation requests.”…

It’s not just hedge fund-owned publishers that have adopted the subscription practices that have caught the government’s attention. Again, most U.S. news organizations don’t give readers an easy way to cancel online. When I checked — more than a week after the FTC announced it planned to crack down on companies who don’t make it easy to cancel — The New York Times still requires you to talk to someone if you want to unsubscribe, either by starting a live chat or by picking up the phone.


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