Health as a Means Towards Profitable Ends: mHealth Apps, User Autonomy, and Unfair Commercial Practices

M. Sax, N. Helberger, N. Bol

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)


In this article, we discuss mHealth apps and their potential to influence the user’s behaviour in increasingly persuasive ways. More specifically, we call attention to the fact that mHealth apps often seek to not only influence the health behaviour of users but also their economic behaviour by merging health and commercial content in ways that are hard to detect. We argue that (1) such merging of health and commercial content raises specific questions concerning the autonomy of mHealth app users, and (2) consumer law offers a promising legal lens to address questions concerning user protection in this context. Based on an empirically informed ethical analysis of autonomy, we develop a fine-grained framework that incorporates three different requirements for autonomy that we call “independence,” “authenticity,” and “options.” This framework also differentiates between three different stages of mHealth app use, namely installing, starting to use, and continuing to use an app. As a result, user autonomy can be analysed in a nuanced and precise manner. Since the concept of autonomy plays a prominent, yet poorly understood role in unfair commercial practice law, we utilize the ethical analysis of autonomy to guide our legal analysis of the proper application of unfair commercial practice law in the mHealth app domain.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)103-134
Number of pages32
JournalJournal of Consumer Policy
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2018
Externally publishedYes


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