The Market for Privacy Lemons. Why “The Market” Can’t Solve The Privacy Problem Without Regulation.

Practically every week, it seems, we get some new revelation about the mishandling of user information that makes people very upset. Indeed, people have become so upset that people are actually talking about, dare we say it, “legislating” some new privacy protections. And no, I don’t mean “codifying existing crap while preempting the states.” For those interested, I have a whitepaper outlining principles for moving forward on effective privacy legislation (which you can read here). My colleagues at my employer Public Knowledge have a few blog posts on how Congress ought to respond to the whole Facebook/Cambridge Analytica thing and analyzing some of the privacy bills introduced this Congress.


Unsurprisingly, we still have folks who insist that we don’t need any regulation and that if we don’t have a market that provides people with privacy protection, it must be because people don’t value privacy protection. After all, the argument goes, if people valued privacy, people would offer services that protect privacy. So if we don’t see such services in the market, people must not want them. Q.E.D. Indeed, these folks will argue, we find that — at least for some services — there are privacy friendly alternatives. Often these cost money, since you aren’t paying with your personal information. This leads some to argue that it’s simply that people like “free stuff.” As a result, the current Administration continues to focus on finding “market based solutions” rather than figuring out what regulations would actually give people greater control over their personal information, and prevent the worst abuses.


But an increasing number of people are wising up to the reality that this isn’t the case. What folks lack is a vocabulary to explain why these “market approaches” don’t work. Fortunately, a Nobel Prize winning economist named George Akerlof figured this out back in the 1970s in a paper called the Market for Lemons. Akerlof’s later work on cognitive dissonance in economics is also relevant and valuable. (You can read what amounts to a high level book report on Akerlof & Dickens “The Economics of Cognitive Dissonance” here.) To summarize: everyone knows that they can’t do anything real to protect their privacy, so they either admit defeat and resent it, or lie to themselves that they don’t care. A few believe they can protect themselves via some combination of services and avoidance I will call the “magic privacy dance,” and therefore blame everyone else for not caring enough to do their own magic privacy dance. This ignores that (a) the magic privacy dance requires specialized knowledge; (b) the magic privacy dance imposes lots of costs, ranging from monthly subscription to a virtual private network (VPN) to opportunity cost from forgoing the use of services like Facebook to the fact that Amazon and Google are so embedded in the structure of the internet at this point that blocking them literally causes large parts of the internet to become inaccessible or slow down to the point of uselessness; and (c) Nothing helps anyway!  No matter how careful you are, a data breach by a company like Equifax or a decision by a company you invested in to change their policy means all you magic privacy dancing amounted to a total expensive waste of time.


Accordingly, the rational consumer gives up. Unless you are willing to become a hermit, “go off the grid,” pay cash for everything, and other stuff limited to retired spies in movies, you simply cannot realistically expect to protect your privacy in any meaningful way. Hence, as predicted by Akerlof, rational consumers don’t trust “market alternatives” promising to protect privacy. Heck, thanks to Congress repealing the FCC’s privacy rules in 2017, you can’t even get on to the internet without exposing your personal information to your broadband provider. Even the happy VPN dance won’t protect all your information from leaking out. So if you are screwed from moment you go online, why bother to try at all?


I explore this more fully below . . .

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