One of the challenges in understanding privacy is how to square what people say about privacy with what they actually do. People say they care deeply about privacy and resent unexpected commercial use of information about them; but they happily give that same information to companies likely to use and sell it. If people value their privacy so highly, why do they sell it for next to nothing?
To put it another way, people say they want more privacy than the market is producing. Why is this? One explanation is that actions speak louder than words, people don’t really want privacy very much (despite what they say), and the market is producing an efficient level of privacy. But there’s another possibility: perhaps a market failure is causing underproduction of privacy.
Why might this be? A recent Slate essay by Reihan Salam gives a clue. Salam talks about the quandry faced by companies like the financial-management site Wesabe. A new company building up its business wants to reassure customers that their information will be treated with the utmost case. But later, when the company is big, it will want to monetize the same customer information. Salam argues that these forces are in tension and few if any companies will be able to stick with their early promises to not be evil.
What customers want, of course, is not good intentions but a solid commitment from a company that it will stay privacy-friendly as it grows. The problem is that there’s no good way for a company to make such a commitment. In principle, a company could make an ironclad legal commitment, written into a contract with customers. But in practice customers will have a hard time deciphering such a contract and figuring out how much it actually protects them. Is the contract enforceable? Are there loopholes? The average customer won’t have a clue. He’ll do what he usually does with a long website contract: glance briefly at it, then shrug and click “Accept”.
An alternative to contracts is signaling. A company will say, repeatedly, that its intentions are pure. It will appoint the right people to its advisory board and send its executives to say the right things at the right conferences. It will take conspicuous, almost extravagant steps to be privacy-friendly. This is all fine as far as it goes, but these signals are a poor substitute for a real commitment. They aren’t too difficult to fake. And even if the signals are backed by the best of intentions, everything could change in an instant if the company is acquired – a new management team might not share the original team’s commitment to privacy. Indeed, if management’s passion for privacy is holding down revenue, such an acquisition will be especially likely.
There’s an obvious market failure here. If we postulate that at least some customers want to use web services that come with strong privacy commitments (and are willing to pay the appropriate premium for them), it’s hard to see how the market can provide what they want. Companies can signal a commitment to privacy, but those signals will be unreliable so customers won’t be willing to pay much for them – which will leave the companies with little incentive to actually protect privacy. The market will underproduce privacy.
How big a problem is this? It depends on how many customers would be willing to pay a premium for privacy – a premium big enough to replace the revenue from monetizing customer information. How many customers would be willing to pay this much? I don’t know. But I do know that people might care a lot about privacy, even if they’re not paying for privacy today.