Friday, July 25, 2003

Privacy vs. Price Discrimination

A very interesting new article from Andrew Odlyzko of the University of Minnesota. He makes the general point that while the information age allows greater invasions of privacy by large corporations, the end result may be a greater ability to engage in first-degree price discrimination rather than relying on relatively inefficient versioning, etc. Here's the abstract:
Privacy, Economics, and Price Discrimination on the Internet

Andrew Odlyzko
Digital Technology Center
University of Minnesota

The rapid erosion of privacy poses numerous puzzles. Why is it occurring, and why do people care about it? This paper proposes an explanation for many of these puzzles in terms of the increasing importance of price discrimination. Privacy appears to be declining largely in order to facilitate differential pricing, which offers greater social and economic gains than auctions or shopping agents. The thesis of this paper is that what really motivates commercial organizations (even though they often do not realize it clearly themselves) is the growing incentive to price discriminate, coupled with the increasing ability to price discriminate. It is the same incentive that has led to the airline yield management system, with a complex and constantly changing array of prices. It is also the same incentive that led railroads to invent a variety of price and quality differentiation schemes in the 19th century. Privacy intrusions serve to provide the information that allows sellers to determine buyers' willingness to pay. They also allow monitoring of usage, to ensure that arbitrage is not used to bypass discriminatory pricing.

Economically, price discrimination is usually regarded as desirable, since it often increases the efficiency of the economy. That is why it is frequently promoted by governments, either through explicit mandates or through indirect means. On the other hand, price discrimination often arouses strong opposition from the public.

There is no easy resolution to the conflict between sellers' incentives to price discriminate and buyers' resistance to such measures. The continuing tension between these two factors will have important consequences for the nature of the economy. It will also determine which technologies will be adopted widely. Governments will likely play an increasing role in controlling pricing, although their roles will continue to be ambiguous. Sellers are likely to rely to an even greater
extent on techniques such as bundling that will allow them to extract more consumer surplus and also to conceal the extent of price discrimination. Micropayments and auctions are likely to play a smaller role than is often expected. In general, because of the strong conflicting influences, privacy is likely to prove an intractable problem that will be prominent on the the public agenda for the foreseeable future.


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