Privacy and the Market for Lemons, or How Websites Are Like Used Cars
I had a fun and engaging discussion on the “Paying With Data” panel at the South by Southwest conference; many thanks to my co-panelists Sara Marie Watson, Julia Angwin and Sam Yagan. I’d like to elaborate here on a concept that I briefly touched upon during the panel.
The market for lemons
In a groundbreaking paper 40 years ago, economist George Akerlof explained why so many used cars are lemons. The key is “asymmetric information:” the seller of a car knows more about its condition than the buyer does. This leads to “adverse selection” and a negative feedback spiral, with buyers tending to assume that there are hidden problems with cars on the market, which brings down prices and disincentivizes owners of good cars from trying to sell, further reinforcing the perception of bad quality.
In general, a market with asymmetric information is in danger of developing these characteristics: 1. buyers/consumers lack the ability to distinguish between high and low quality products 2. sellers/service providers lose the incentive to focus on quality and 3. the bad gradually crowds out the good since poor-quality products are cheaper to produce.
Information security and privacy suffer from this problem at least as much as used cars do.
The market for security products and certification
Bruce Schneier describes how various security products, such as USB drives, have turned into a lemon market. And in a fascinating paper, Ben Edelman analyzes data from TRUSTe certifications and comes to some startling conclusions [emphasis mine]:
Widely-used online “trust” authorities issue certifications without substantial verification of recipients’ actual trustworthiness. This lax approach gives rise to adverse selection: The sites that seek and obtain trust certifications are actually less trustworthy than others. Using a new dataset on web site safety, I demonstrate that sites certified by the best-known authority, TRUSTe, are more than twice as likely to be untrustworthy as uncertified sites. This difference remains statistically and economically significant when restricted to “complex” commercial sites.
TRUSTe’s “Watchdog Reports” also indicate a lack of focus on enforcement. TRUSTe’s postings reveal that users continue to submit hundreds of complaints each month. But of the 3,416 complaints received since January 2003, TRUSTe concluded that not a single one required any change to any member’s operations, privacy statement, or privacy practices, nor did any complaint require any revocation or on-site audit. Other aspects of TRUSTe’s watchdog system also indicate a lack of diligence.
The market for personal data
In the realm of online privacy and data collection, the information asymmetry results from a serious lack of transparency around privacy policies. The website or service provider knows what happens to data that’s collected, but the user generally doesn’t. This arises due to several economic, architectural, cognitive and regulatory limitations/flaws:
- Each click is a transaction. As a user browses around the web, she interacts with dozens of websites and performs hundreds of actions per day. It is impossible to make privacy decisions with every click, or have a meaningful business relationship with each website, and hold them accountable for their data collection practices.
- Technology is hard to understand. Companies can often get away with meaningless privacy guarantees such as “anonymization” as a magic bullet, or “military-grade security,” a nonsensical term. The complexity of private browsing mode has led to user confusion and a false sense of safety.
- Privacy policies are filled with legalese and no one reads them, which means that disclosures made therein count for nothing. Yet, courts have upheld them as enforceable, disincentivizing websites from finding ways to communicate more clearly.
Collectively, these flaws have led to a well-documented market failure—there’s an arms race to use all means possible to entice users to give up more information, as well as to collect it passively through ever-more intrusive means. Self-regulatory organizations become captured by those they are supposed to regulate, and therefore their effectiveness quickly evaporates.
TRUSTe seems to be up to some shenanigans the online tracking space as well. As many have pointed out, the TRUSTe “Tracking Protection List” for Internet Explorer is in fact a whitelist, allowing about 4,000 domains—almost certainly from companies that have paid TRUSTe—to track the user. Worse, installing the TRUSTe list seems to override the blocking of a domain via another list!
The obvious response to a market with asymmetric information is to correct the information asymmetry—for used cars, it involves taking it to a mechanic, and for online privacy, it is consumer education. Indeed, the What They Know series has done just that, and has been a big reason why we’re having this conversation today.
However, I am skeptical that the market can be fixed though consumer awareness alone. Many of the factors I’ve laid out above involve fundamental cognitive limitations, and while consumers may be well-educated about the general dangers prevalent online, it does not necessarily help them make fine-grained decisions.
It is for these reasons that some sort of Government regulation of the online data-gathering ecosystem seems necessary. Regulatory capture is of course still a threat, but less so than with self-regulation. Jonathan Mayer and I point out in our FTC Comment that ad industry self-regulation of online tracking has been a failure, and argue that the FTC must step in and enforce Do Not Track.
In summary, information asymmetry occurs in many markets related to security and privacy, leading in most cases to a spiraling decline in quality of products and services from a consumer perspective. Before we can talk about solutions, we must clearly understand why the market won’t fix itself, and in this post I have shown why that’s the case.
Update. TRUSTe president Fran Maier responds in the comments.
Thanks to Jonathan Mayer for helpful feedback.