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Automatic subscription renewals take fire from Chinese state media

State-run People’s Daily takes aim at the automatic payment model used in many domestic apps, calling it a trap.

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If you’ve ever forgotten to cancel an online subscription, you probably know the feeling of being locked into another month of a service you don’t want. Many people write this off as a cost of the digital economy. But for China’s state-run news outlet People’s Daily, auto-renewing subscriptions are a scourge that must be stopped.

In a commentary published on Tuesday, the outlet blasted Chinese app makers for automatically renewing users’ subscriptions. The practice is a “trap” for consumers and needs to be more strongly regulated, the piece argues.

Auto-renewals are common for subscription services these days. Whether you watch movies on Netflix or listen to music on Spotify, automatic payments are what keep you from going to each service you use to manually make a payment every month.

But it’s also easy for those subscriptions to pile up and for people to lose track of what they’re paying for online. People’s Daily argued that services take advantage of this by using introductory prices for the first month that are tied to future automatic payments.

“These auto-renewal tricks may appear smart, but they only think they’re being smart,” People’s Daily said.

Another obstacle, according to the article, is that some apps add extra steps to the cancellation process, making it difficult to end the payments. Many people online agree. Q&A site Zhihu is full of questions asking how to cancel subscriptions for a wide range of apps. Some people also chimed in on the People’s Daily post about the article on microblogging site Weibo.

“The thing is, if I want to cancel [a subscription], I’ll have to ask Baidu,” one Weibo user commented, referencing China’s biggest search engine. “Otherwise I wouldn’t know how.”

But this opinion isn’t universal. Other commenters said they think platforms make it clear that they’re agreeing to auto-renewals and blame themselves if they forget to cancel. Some also said they may cancel subscriptions immediately after paying, ensuring they are only signed up for a single month.

Streaming platforms called out

Auto-renewals are not unique to online services, but it’s helped ensure steady revenue streams for companies in the digital age. Complaints about subscriptions that are difficult to cancel are also not new, and they’ve been made against some of China’s biggest platforms.

People’s Daily did not name specific apps in its article, but video streaming platforms have been mentioned in state media reports about auto-renewals in the past. In April, Zhejiang’s government-backed consumer association called out nine video streaming platforms—including Tencent Video, iQiyi, Youku, and Bilibili—along with Ximalaya FM and Qingting FM, two of China’s most popular podcast apps. Among the complaints about the platforms’ practices were default auto-renewals and difficult cancellation procedures.

After ordering the companies to fix these problems, the Zhejiang government said in May that some of them promised to stop making auto-renewals a default option. They also will reportedly make the cancellation process clearer to users. The government didn’t identify which companies promised to make the changes.

These kinds of reports are not unusual for state media in China, which routinely call out Chinese companies for misbehavior. This also isn’t the first time state media outlets have criticized auto-renewals.

Last year, state broadcaster CCTV ran a news segment that said 70% of 50 popular apps that staff tested automatically renewed users’ plans. Many of them “trick” users into auto-renewals with vague descriptions, the report said, adding that it was a violation of consumers’ right to know.

This article was originally published by Abacus News.