Adobe Inc., the developer of such emblematic applications as Photoshop and Premiere (or formats as popular as PDF), has been the target of an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) of the United States for more than two years due to its peculiar policies of canceling subscriptions.

After years of user complaints about Adobe’s difficulties in canceling its subscriptions — and, above all, the costs of cancellations — the FTC seems determined to force the company to change its bad practices. Oh, and probably to pay a big fine.

What has Adobe been up to?

Users of programs like Photoshop and Premiere have often complained about the high costs associated with canceling their subscriptions, which can exceed $700 annually for individual users.

In addition, Adobe requires subscribers to cancel within the first two weeks of purchasing a subscription to receive a full refund; otherwise, they incur a prorated penalty. Other subscription-based digital services, such as Spotify and Netflix, do not impose cancellation fees.

But, if you ask them, many former Adobe users will explain that the problem lies not only in the high cost of cancellation, but in the fact that, at the time they subscribed, it was not at all clear that there was anything to cancel. Let me explain.

The Deceptive Subscription Process, Step by Step

As this thread tells us in X, the strategy in question – which, of course, can be classified as a ‘dark pattern’ – starts on the very homepage of Adobe Creative Cloud, where a starting price of ‘X’ €/$ per month is clearly advertised. However, the problem arises when users click on the “Free Trial” button.

On the next page, a “7 days free” offer is mentioned and then a slightly higher monthly cost (by a few cents) than the previous one, which still seems like a good deal.

The real confusion starts when users click on “Start Free Trial.” At that point, they are agreeing to a tacit agreement that binds them to an annual contract, although this information is in fine print and easily goes unnoticed.

Most users don’t realize they’re signing an annual contract until they dig deeper: “By starting my 7-day free trial, I’m initiating a subscription and agreeing to the subscription and cancellation terms as well as the Terms of Use,” the agreement reads.

Cancellation terms are hard to find and are hidden among a sea of unimportant text on a separate page. Also, crucial information about the total annual cost and 50% cancellation fee is buried in the text.

In short, by clicking “Start Free Trial,” users are locked into an annual contract with Adobe, meaning they’re committed to paying that amount monthly for 12 months. If they wish to cancel after the first 14 days, they will be charged 50% of the remaining annual balance, which can translate into a substantial cost.

An absolute lack of transparency that intentionally leads to misunderstandings and unforeseen expenses for users who are just looking to try out a service before making a long-term commitment; and that, logically, they usually wait until the end of the period already paid (one month, not 14 days) before deciding if they want to continue subscribing to it.

Oh, and the best is missing… Adobe doesn’t allow you to automatically renew your subscription: it only gives you the option to cancel your subscription. So, either we are pending to cancel the day before the renewal, or we will still have to pay 50% of the unused term. Adobe, more than a subscription, is a trap.

And then?

Adobe has always claimed that all of these practices are within the bounds of the law, and has tried to convince the FTC of this, but it seems unlikely that, after these months of investigation, it will achieve such success. In fact, there is already talk that the investigation of this body could be close to completion… in a hefty penalty to the company.

But in addition to the FTC’s investigation, its British counterpart — the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) — has also raised objections to Adobe’s policies. In its case, they refer to its acquisition of Figma Inc. for $20 billion, arguing that it could reduce competition in the digital design software market.

Against this backdrop, Adobe’s shares have experienced a 6% drop in the stock market, and the company has been quick to lower its revenue forecasts for the new year below previous estimates.

The consequences won’t just affect Adobe

Regardless of the final outcome of the investigation, the FTC already put on the table a few months ago its proposal for a new rule to regulate cancellations. According to it, companies should allow consumers to cancel as easily as they subscribe. In addition, companies are required to obtain consumer consent before submitting additional offers when they attempt to cancel their subscriptions.

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