Posts tagged ‘economics’
Last October I gave a talk titled “What Happened to the Crypto Dream?” where I looked at why crypto seems to have done little for personal privacy. The reaction from the audience (physical and online) was quite encouraging — not that everyone agreed, but they seemed to find it thought provoking — and several people asked me if I’d turn it into a paper. So when Prof. Alessandro Acquisti invited me to contribute an essay to the “On the Horizon” column in IEEE S&P magazine, I jumped at the chance, and suggested this topic.
While I’m not saying anything earth shaking, I do make a somewhat nuanced argument — I distinguish between “crypto for security” and “crypto for privacy,” and further subdivide the latter into a spectrum between what I call “Cypherpunk Crypto” and “Pragmatic Crypto.” I identify different practical impediments that apply to those two flavors (in the latter case, a complex of related factors), and lay out a few avenues for action that can help privacy-enhancing crypto move in a direction more relevant to practice.
I’m aware that this is a contentious topic, especially since some people feel that the time is ripe for a resurgence of the cypherpunk vision. I’m happy to hear your reactions.
In my previous article I pointed out that online price discrimination is suspiciously absent in directly observable form, even though covert price discrimination is everywhere. Now let’s talk about why that might be.
By “covert” I don’t mean that the firm is trying to keep price discrimination a secret. Rather, I mean that the differential treatment isn’t made explicit — e.g., by not basing it directly on a customer attribute — and thereby avoiding triggering the perception of unfairness or discrimination. A common example is selective distribution of coupons instead of listing different prices. Such discounting may be publicized, but it is still covert.
The perception of fairness
The perception of fairness or unfairness, then, is at the heart of what’s going on. Going back to the WSJ piece, I found it interesting to see the reaction of the customer to whom Staples quoted $1.50 more for a stapler based on her ZIP code: “How can they get away with that?” she asks. To which my initial reaction was, “Get away with what, exactly? Supply and demand? Econ 101?”
Even though some of us might not feel the same outrage, I think all of us share at least a vague sense of unease about overt price discrimination. So I decided to dig deeper into the literature in psychology, marketing, and behavioral economics on the topic of price fairness and understand where this perception comes from. What I found surprised me.
First, the fairness heuristic is quite elaborate and complex. In a vast literature spanning several decades, early work such as the “principle of dual entitlement” by Kahneman and coauthors established some basics. Quoting Anderson and Simester: “This theory argues that customers’ have perceived fairness levels for both ﬁrm proﬁts and retail prices. Although ﬁrms are entitled to earn a fair proﬁt, customers are also entitled to a fair price. Deviations from a fair price can be justiﬁed only by the ﬁrm’s need to maintain a fair proﬁt. According to this argument, it is fair for retailers to raise the price of snow shovels if the wholesale price increases, but it is not fair to do so if a snowstorm leads to excess demand.”
Much later work has added to and refined that model. A particularly impressive and highly cited 2004 paper reviews the literature and proposes an elaborate framework with four different classes inputs to explain how people decide if pricing is fair or unfair in various situations. Some of the findings are quite surprising. For example: in case of differential pricing to the buyer’s disadvantage, “trust in the seller has a U-shaped effect on price fairness perceptions.”
The illusion of fairness
Sounds like we have a well-honed and sophisticated decision procedure, then? Quite the opposite, actually. The fairness heuristic seems to be rather fragile, even if complex.
Let’s start with an example. Andrew Odlyzko, in his brilliant essay on price discrimination — all the more for the fact that it was published back in 2003  — has this to say about Coca Cola’s ill-fated plans for price-adjusting vending machines: “In retrospect, Coca Cola’s main problem was that news coverage always referred to its work as leading to vending machines that would raise prices in warm weather. Had it managed to control publicity and present its work as leading to machines that would lower prices in cold weather, it might have avoided the entire controversy.”
We know how to explain the public’s reaction to the Coca Cola announcement using behavioral economics — the way it was presented (or framed), customers take the lower price as the “reference price,” and the price increase seems unfair, whereas the Odlyzko’s suggested framing would anchor the higher price as the reference price. Of course, just because we can explain how the fairness heuristic works doesn’t make it logical or consistent, let alone properly grounded in social justice.
More generally, every aspect of our mental price fairness assessment heuristic seems similarly vulnerable to hijacking by tweaking the presentation of the transaction without changing the essence of price discrimination. Companies have of course gotten wise to this; there’s even academic literature on it. One of the techniques proposed in this paper is “reference group signaling” — getting a customer to change the set of other customers to whom they mentally compare themselves. 
The perception of fairness, then, can be more properly called the illusion of fairness.
The fragility of the fairness heuristic becomes less surprising considering that we apparently share it with other primates. This hilarious clip from a TED talk shows a capuchin monkey reacting poorly, to put it mildly, to differential treatment in a monkey-commerce setting (although the jury may still be out on the significance of this experiment). If our reaction to pricing schemes is partly or largely due to brain circuitry that evolved millions of years ago, we shouldn’t expect it to fare well when faced with the complexities of modern business.
Given that the prime impediment to pervasive online price discrimination is a moral principle that is fickle and easily circumventable, one can expect that companies to do exactly that, since they can reap most of the benefits of price discrimination without the negative PR. Indeed, it is my belief that more covert price discrimination is going on than is generally recognized, and that it is accelerating due to some technological developments.
This is a problem because price discrimination does raise ethical concerns, and these concerns are every bit as significant when it is covert.  However, since it is much less transparent, there’s less of an opportunity for public debate.
There are two directions in which I want to take this series of articles from this point: first a look at how new technology is enabling powerful forms of tailoring and covert price discrimination, and second, a discussion of what can be done to make price discrimination more transparent and how to have an informed policy discussion about its benefits and dangers.
 I had the pleasure of sitting next to Professor Odlyzko at a conference dinner once, and I expressed my admiration of the prescience of his article. He replied that he’d worked it all out in his head circa 1996 but took a few years to put it down on paper. I could only stare at him wordlessly.
 I’m struck by the similarities between price fairness perceptions and privacy perceptions. The aforementioned 2004 price fairness framework can be seen as serving a roughly analogous function to contextual integrity, which is (in part) a theory of consumer privacy expectations. Both these theories are the result of “reverse engineering,” if you will, of the complex mental models in their respective domains using empirical behavioral evidence. Continuing the analogy, privacy expectations are also fragile, highly susceptible to framing, and liable to be exploited by companies. Acquisti and Grossklags, among others, have done some excellent empirical work on this.
 In fact, crude ways of making customers reveal their price sensitivity lead to a much higher social cost than overt price discrimination. I will take this up in more detail in a future post.
The mystery about online price discrimination is why so little of it seems to be happening.
Consumer advocates and journalists among others have been trying to find smoking gun evidence of price discrimination — the overt kind where different customers are charged different prices for identical products based on how much they are willing to pay. (By contrast, examples of covert or concealed price discrimination abound; see, for example, my 2011 article.) Back in 2000 Amazon tried a short-lived experiment where prices of DVDs for new and for regular users were different. But that remains essentially the only example.
This should be surprising. Tailoring prices to individuals is far more technically feasible online than offline, since shoppers are either identified or at least have loads of behavioral data associated with their pseudonymous cookies. The online advertising industry claims that this is highly effective for targeting ads; estimating consumers’ willingness to pay shouldn’t be much harder. Clearly, price discrimination has benefits to firms engaging in it by allowing them to capture more of the “consumer surplus.” (Whether or not it is beneficial to consumers is a more controversial question that I will defer to a future post.) In fact, based on technical feasibility and economic benefits, one might expect the practice to be pervasive.
The evidence (or lack thereof)
A study out of Spain last year took a comprehensive look at online merchants, by far the most thorough analysis of its kind. They created two “personas” with different browsing histories — one of which visited discount sites and the other visited sites for luxury products. Each persona then browsed 200 e-commerce sites as well as search engines to see if they were treated differently. Here’s what the authors found:
- There is evidence for search discrimination or steering where the high- and low-income personas are shown ads for high-end and low-end products respectively. In my opinion, the line between this practice and plain old behavioral advertising is very, very slim. 
- There is no evidence for price discrimination based on personas/browsing histories.
- Three of the 200 retailers including Staples varied prices based on the user’s location, but necessarily not in a way that can’t be explained by costs of doing business.
- Visitors coming from one particular deals site (nextag.com) saw lower prices at various retailers. (Discounting and “deals” are very common forms of concealed price discrimination.)
A new investigation by the Wall Street Journal analyzes Staples in more detail. While the Spain study found geographic variation in prices, the WSJ study goes further and shows a strong correlation between lower prices and consumers’ ability to drive to competitors’ stores, which is an indicator of willingness to pay. I’m not 100% convinced that they’ve ruled out alternative hypotheses, but it does seem plausible that Staples’ behavior constitutes actual price discrimination, even though geography is a far cry from utilizing behavioral data about individuals.
Other findings in the WSJ piece are websites that offer discounts for mobile users and location-dependent pricing on Lowe’s and Home Depot’s websites but with little evidence of being based on anything but costs of doing business.
So there we have it. Both studies are very thorough, and I commend the authors, but I consider their results to be mostly negative — very few companies are varying prices at all and none are utilizing anywhere near the full extent of data available about users. Other price discrimination controversies include steering by Orbitz and a hastily-retracted announcement by Coca Cola for vending machines that would tailor prices to demand. Neither company charged or planned to charge different prices for the same product based on who the consumer was.
In short, despite all the hubbub, I find overt price discrimination conspicuous by its absence. In a follow-up post I will propose an explanation for the mystery and see what we can learn from it.
 This is an automatic consequence of collaborative recommendation that suggests products to users based on what similar users have clicked on/purchased in the past. It does not require that any explicit inference of the consumer’s level of affluence be made by the system. In other words, steering, bubbling etc. are inherent features of collaborative filtering algorithms which drive personalization, recommendation and information retrieval on the Internet. This fact greatly complicates attempts to define, detect or regulate unfair discrimination online.
Thanks to Aleecia McDonald for reviewing a draft.
Although the strategic use of prizes to foster sci-tech innovation has a long history, it has exploded in the last two decades—35% annual growth on average, or doubling every 2.3 years. Much has been said on the topic, but I have yet to see a clear answer to the core mystery:
Why do prizes work?
Specifically, why are they more effective than simply hiring people to do it? The question is more complex than it sounds, and a valid explanation must address the following:
- Why shouldn’t government and industry research funding be switched over entirely to a prize-based model?
- Why did the prize revolution happen in the last two decades, and not earlier?
- How do prizes succeed in spite of the massive duplication of effort that you’d expect due to numerous contestants trying to solve the same problem?
Prizes exploit the productivity-reward imbalance
In many fields there is a huge disparity—order of magnitude or more—between the productivity of the top performers and the median performers. The structure of the corporation, having co-evolved with the industrial revolution for harnessing workers to build railroads or textiles, is fundamentally limited in its ability to reward employees in creative endeavors in proportion to their contribution, or even measure it. Academia is a little better due to the precedence of fame over monetary reward, but has its own problems.
Enter prizes. The winner-take-all structure gives individuals or small organizations of exceptional caliber a chance to earn prestige as well as cash that they don’t otherwise have a shot at.
Prizes channel existing research funding
The Netflix prize attracted 34,000 contestants. At an average of just 1 hour (valued at $100) per contestant, the monetary value of the time spent on the contest dwarfs the prize amount. And the majority of contestants—or at least the ones with a serious chance—were already employed as researchers. This effect is broadly true: for example, contestants spent a total of over $100 million in pursuit of the Ansari X Prize which carries a $10 million award.
This is in no way meant to be a criticism of prizes—sure, prizes direct attention away from other problems, but one expects that on average, problems for which prizes are offered are more important than others.
Nor does the ability of prizes to spur effort far in excess of the monetary award necessarily mean that contestant behavior is irrational, since the prestige and media attention are typically worth far more than the cash, and because failure to win the prize doesn’t mean the effort is wasted.
That said, the well-known human tendency to systematically overestimate one’s own abilities certainly has a role in explaining the power of prizes to attract talent. According to the same McKinsey report linked above, “many of the participants that we interviewed were absolutely convinced they were going to win [the Ansari X Prize], if not this year, then surely the next.”
What about democratization?
The openness of prizes is often advanced as a key reason for their superiority over traditional research funding. There are two very different components to this assertion: the first is that prizes encourage hybridization of expertise from different fields, given that researchers often fall into the trap of collaborating only within their own communities. There is evidence for this from a study of Innocentive.
The second argument is that prizes allow even non-expert members of the general public, who might otherwise never be involved in research, to participate. I find this argument unconvincing and there is little evidence to support it, if you ignore anecdotes from the 19th century when science funding was meager by today’s standards. However, crowdsourcing to the public seems a good strategy for prizes that are more about problem solving than original research. Challenge.gov may be a good example, depending on how it pans out.
The Internet as an enabler
Now let’s look at the three auxiliary questions I posed above. My explanation for prize effectiveness—self-selection, redirection of funding, and interdisciplinary collaboration—can answer them comfortably. If all research funding were based on prizes, it would defeat the purpose since prizes only serve to redirect existing research funding.
The rapid growth of the sector since 1990 is an obvious indication that the Internet had something to do with it. But how exactly? I think there are several reasons. First, the Internet could be making it easier for experts from different physical locations and/or areas of expertise to team up and to collaborate.
Second, increased reach, shorter cycles and improved economies of scale in most markets in the Internet era have exacerbated the performance-reward imbalance, as well as making the imbalance more obvious to all involved. This is a factor fueling the startup revolution as well.
Finally, and perhaps crucially, I believe the Internet has largely nullified one of the key disadvantages of prizes, which is duplication of effort. The Netflix prize, for one, was marked by a remarkable degree of sharing, and sponsors of new contests are increasingly tweaking the process to ensure that teams build on each other’s ideas.
These factors are only going to accelerate in the future, which suggests that the torrid growth of prizes in number and amount is going to continue for some time to come. There are now many companies dedicated to running these contests—Innocentive is the leader, and Kaggle is a startup focused on the data-mining space. Exciting times.
 My numbers are based on this McKinsey report which seems by far the most comprehensive study of prizes and is well worth reading for anyone interested in the subject. The aggregate purse of prizes over $100,000 grew from $50MM to $302MM from 1991 to 2008, during which period the share of “inducement prizes,” the kind we’re concerned with here, showed remarkable growth from 3% of the total to 78%.
This is the first in a series of articles that will show how we’re at a turning point in the history of price discrimination and discuss the consequences. This article presents numerous examples of traditional price discrimination that you see today, many of which are funny, sad, or downright devious.
Price discrimination, more euphemistically known as differential pricing and dynamic pricing, exploits the fact that in any transaction each customer has a different “willingness to pay.”
What is “willingness to pay,” and how does the seller determine it? To illustrate, let me quote a hilarious story by Steve Blank on selling enterprise software. The protagonist is one Sandy Kurtzig.
Since it was the first non-IBM enterprise software on IBM mainframes, [when] she got her first potential order, she didn’t know how to price it. It must have been back in the mid-’70s. She’s [with] this buyer, has a P.O. on his desk, negotiating pricing with Sandy.
So, Sandy said she goes into the buyer who says, “How much is it?”
And Sandy gulped and picked the biggest number she thought anybody would ever rationally pay. And said, “$75,000″. And she said all the buyer did was write down $75,000.
And she realized, shit, she left money on the table. … And she said, “Per year.”
And the buyer wrote down, “Per year.”
And she went, oh, crap what else? She said, “There’s maintenance.”
He said, “How much?”
“25 percent per year.”
And he said, “That’s too much.”
She said, “15 percent.”
And he said, “OK.”
Sadly, not all transactions are as much fun as pricing enterprise software ;-) The price usually has to be determined without meeting the buyer face to face. There are three types of price discrimination based on how the price is determined:
- Each buyer is charged a custom price. (Traditionally, there has never been enough data to do this.)
- Price depends on an attribute of the buyer such as age or gender.
- Different price for different categories of buyers, with the seller somehow getting the buyer to reveal which category they fall into. As we’ll see, hilarity frequently ensues.
Additionally, each buyer may be sold the same product, or it could be customized to each segment—in the extreme case, to each buyer. This is called product differentiation.
Alright. Time to dive into some examples.
1. Student discounts at movies, museums, etc. are one of the simplest types of price discrimination. Students are generally poorer and more price sensitive, so the business hopes to attract more of them by making it cheaper.
Why museums and movies, and not say grocery stores? Two reasons: first, if the grocery store tried it, they’d quickly run into the problem of resale by the group that qualifies for the lower price. (It could manifest as parents sending their kids to get groceries.) The museum doesn’t have this problem because they ask for a student ID.
Second, grocery stores set prices pretty close to their marginal cost anyway, so there’s not as much of a scope for variable pricing. With museums, on the other hand, it costs them next to nothing to admit an extra visitor. All of their costs are fixed costs.
2. Ladies’ night at bars is another simple example of price discrimination based on an attribute (gender). Rather than women having a lower willingness to pay, it is perhaps more accurate to say that men are more desperate to get in :-)
Interestingly, this is one of the few examples whose legality is questionable. Wikipedia has a good survey. Also, it is not a “pure” example since the point of ladies’ night is not just to get more women through the door but also, indirectly, to get more men through the door.
3. A less obvious example is the variation of gas prices (and other commodities) within the same chain across locations. This is because people in richer ZIP codes are willing to pay more on average.
An important caveat: some of the variation is typically explainable by differences in marginal cost (such as rent) between different locations, but not all of it.
4. Financial aid at universities is a rather complex case of price discrimination. Instead of charging different rates to different students, the seller has a base rate and gives discounts (aid) to qualifying students.
You can see aid programs in humanitarian/political terms or in economic terms; the two paradigms are not in conflict with each other. In the economic view, students with higher scores receive aid because they have more college options and are therefore more price-sensitive. Poorer students and minorities receive aid because they are less able/willing to pay.
In the examples so far, the attribute(s) that factor into discrimination are either obvious (gender, race, location) or it is in the buyer’s interest to disclose them to the seller (student status, financial need). Now let’s look at examples where the seller has to be crafty in getting the buyer to disclose it.
The same principle applies to numerous other product categories like wine and coffee. But at least you’re getting at least a nominally superior product for a higher price. Let’s look at examples where buyers voluntarily pay more for the same product.
6. Dell.com used to ask customers if they were home users, small businesses, or other categories. The prices for the same products varied according to the category you declared. There was no legally binding reason to be honest about your disclosure, and no enforcement mechanism.
Now for a more devious example.
7. “Staples brazenly sends out different office supply catalogs with different prices to the same customers. The price-sensitive buyers know which to buy from. The inattentive ones pay extra.” [source]
A similar example: restaurants with long menus sometimes highlight some popular choices on the first page. The same items are available in the long-form menu for cheaper, if only you knew where they’re buried.
These examples illustrate an extremely common form of price discrimination:
This theme is so fundamental that it has been practiced for thousands of years in the form of haggling.
8. The jumping-through-hoops principle suggests that it makes economic sense for the seller to make discounts hard to get. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Black Friday deals—stand in ridiculously long lines all night to get fabulous discounts. Wealthier customers who don’t bother doing so will get much less of a discount during regular store hours, even on Black Friday.
9. More examples of hard-to-get discounts: woot.com, mailing-list deals and Southwest Airlines DING. Many of these involve artificial scarcity and time-limitations to make them more difficult to get, thus ensuring that those who take advantage are buyers who might otherwise not buy at all.
10. Perhaps the most extreme example of roping in buyers who might otherwise not buy is deliberately crippling your own product, known in economics as damaged goods.
IBM did this with its popular LaserPrinter by adding chips that slowed down the printing to about half the speed of the regular printer. The slowed printer sold for about half the price, under the IBM LaserPrinter E name.
It is not because of the few thousand francs which would have to be spent to put a roof over the third-class carriages or to upholster the third-class seats that some company or other has open carriages with wooden benches. What the company is trying to do is to prevent the passengers who can pay the second class fare from traveling third class; it hits the poor, not because it wants to hurt them, but to frighten the rich. And it is again for the same reason that the companies, having proved almost cruel to the third-class passengers and mean to the second-class ones, become lavish in dealing with first-class passengers. Having refused the poor what is necessary, they give the rich what is superfluous.
These examples should make clear that:
11. There are endless examples of clever tricks to learn the customer’s price-sensitivity in the airline industry. The price for the same seat can vary greatly depending on a variety of factors. The most well-known one is that you get lower prices if your trip spans a weekend, because it probably means you’re not a business traveler.
12. First class and business class seating on airlines is also price discrimination, but of a very different kind. Here it’s not different prices for the same product but different prices for slightly different products. Buyers segment themselves due to product differentiation, a phenomenon we’ve seen before with cars.
The first class/economy price spread can often be as high as 10x, which illustrates the wide range of customers’ willingness to pay. For a variety of reasons, most other markets haven’t managed to attain such a high price spread.
Aaaaaand we’re done with the examples!
Note that this is far from a complete list—I haven’t covered clearance sales, loyalty programs and frequent flyer miles, hi-lo pricing, drug prices that vary by country, and so forth, but I hope I’ve convinced you that price discrimination in some form already happens in nearly every market.
But here’s the kicker: I’ve deliberately left out what I consider the most important class of examples, because I’m going to devote a whole article to it. I will argue that this emerging form of price discrimination is going to explode in popularity and dwarf anything we’ve seen so far. Feel free to guess what I’m thinking about in the comments, and stay tuned!
Many thanks to Justin Brickell, Alejandro Molnar and Adam Bossy for useful discussions and comments. Thanks also to my Twitter followers for putting up with my ‘tweetathon’ on this topic two months ago and providing feedback.
One of the most important trends in the recent evolution of the Internet has been the move towards centralization and closed platforms. I’m interested in this question in the context of social networks—analyzing why no decentralized social network has yet taken off, whether one ever will, and whether a decentralized social network is important for society and freedom. With this in mind, I read Tim Wu’s ‘The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires,’ a powerful book that will influence policy debates for some time to come. My review follows.
‘The Master Switch’ has two parts. The former discusses the history of communications media through the twentieth century and shows evidence for “The Cycle” of open innovation → closed monopoly → disruption. The latter, shorter part is more speculative and argues that the same fate will befall the Internet, absent aggressive intervention.
The first part of the book is unequivocally excellent. There are so many grand as well as little historical facts buried in there. Wu makes his case well for the claim that radio, telephony, film and television have all taken much the same path.
A point that Wu drives home repeatedly is that while free speech in law is always spoken of in the context of Governmental controls, the private entities that own or control the medium of speech play a far bigger role in practice in determining how much freedom of speech society has. In the U.S., we are used to regulating Governmental barriers to speech but not private ones, and a lot of the book is about exposing the problems with this approach.
An interesting angle the author takes is to look at the motives of the key men that shaped the “information industries” of the past. This is apposite given the enormous impact on history that each of these few has had, and I felt it added a layer of understanding compared to a purely factual account.
But let’s cut to the chase—the argument about the future of the Internet. I wasn’t sure whether I agreed or disagreed until I realized Wu is making two different claims, a weak one and a strong one, and does not separate them clearly.
The weak claim is simply that an open Internet is better for society in the long run than a closed one. Open and closed here are best understood via the exemplars of Google and Apple. Wu argues this reasonably well, and in any case not much argument is needed—most of us would consider it obvious on the face of it.
The strong claim, and the one that is used to justify intervention, is that a closed Internet will have such crippling effects on innovation and such chilling effects on free speech that it is our collective duty to learn from history and do something before the dystopian future materializes. This is where I think Wu’s argument falls short.
To begin with, Wu doesn’t have a clear reason why the Internet will follow the previous technologies, except, almost literally, “we can’t be sure it won’t.” He overstates the similarities and downplays the differences.
Second, I believe Wu doesn’t fully understand technology and the Internet in some key ways. Bizarrely, he appears to believe that the Internet’s predilection for decentralization is due to our cultural values rather than technological and business realities prevalent when these systems were designed.
Finally, Wu has a tendency to see things in black and white, in terms of good and evil, which I find annoying, and more importantly, oversimplified. He quotes this sentence approvingly: “Once we replace the personal computer with a closed-platform device such as the iPad, we replace freedom, choice and the free market with oppression, censorship and monopoly.” He also says that “no one denies that the future will be decided by one of two visions,” in the context of iOS and Android. It isn’t clear why he thinks they can’t coexist the way the Mac and PC have.
Regardless of whether one buys his dystopian prognostications, Wu’s paradigm of the “separations principle” is to be taken seriously. It is far broader than even net neutrality. There appear to be two key pillars: a separation of platforms and content, and limits on corporate structures to faciliate this—mainly vertical, but also horizontal, such as in the case of media conglomerates.
Interestingly, Wu wants the separations principle to be more of a societal-corporate norm than Governmental regulation. That said, he does call for more powers to the FCC, which is odd given that he is clear on the role that State actors have played in the past in enabling and condoning monopoly abuse:
Again and again in the histories I have recounted, the state has shown itself an inferior arbiter of what is good for the information industries. The federal government’s role in radio and television from the 1920s to the 1960s, for instance, was nothing short of a disgrace. In the service of chain broadcasting, it wrecked a vibrant, decentralized AM marketplace. At the behest of the ascendant radio industry, it blocked the arrival and prospects of FM radio, and then it put the brakes on television, reserving it for the NBC-CBS duopoly. Finally, from the 1950s through the 1960s, it did everything in its power to prevent cable television from challenging the primacy of the networks.
To his credit, Wu does seem to be aware of the contradiction, and appears to argue that the Government agencies can learn and change. It does seem like a stretch, however.
In summary, Wu deserves major kudos both for the historical treatment and for some very astute insights about the Internet. For example, in the last 2-3 years, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter have all made dramatic moves toward centralization, control and closed platforms. Wu seems to have foreseen this general trend more clearly than most techies did. The book does have drawbacks, and I don’t agree that the Internet will go the way of past monopolies without intervention. It should be very interesting to see what moves Wu will make now that he will be advising the FTC.
 While the book was published in late 2010, I assume that Wu’s ideas are much older.
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.