The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is at it again, threatening new sorts of regulatory interventions in the legitimate welfare-enhancing activities of businesses—this time in the realm of data collection by firms.
In an April 11 speech at the International Association of Privacy Professionals’ Global Privacy Summit, FTC Chair Lina Khan set forth a litany of harms associated with companies’ data-acquisition practices. Certainly, fraud and deception with respect to the use of personal data has the potential to cause serious harm to consumers and is the legitimate target of FTC enforcement activity. At the same time, the FTC should take into account the substantial benefits that private-sector data collection may bestow on the public (see, for example, here, here, and here) in order to formulate economically beneficial law-enforcement protocols.
Chair Khan’s speech, however, paid virtually no attention to the beneficial side of data collection. To the contrary, after highlighting specific harmful data practices, Khan then waxed philosophical in condemning private data-collection activities (citations omitted):
Beyond these specific harms, the data practices of today’s surveillance economy can create and exacerbate deep asymmetries of information—exacerbating, in turn, imbalances of power. As numerous scholars have noted, businesses’ access to and control over such vast troves of granular data on individuals can give those firms enormous power to predict, influence, and control human behavior. In other words, what’s at stake with these business practices is not just one’s subjective preference for privacy, but—over the long term—one’s freedom, dignity, and equal participation in our economy and society.
Even if one accepts that private-sector data practices have such transcendent social implications, are the FTC’s philosopher kings ideally equipped to devise optimal policies that promote “freedom, dignity, and equal participation in our economy and society”? Color me skeptical. (Indeed, one could argue that the true transcendent threat to society from fast-growing growing data collection comes not from businesses but, rather, from the government, which unlike private businesses holds a legal monopoly on the right to use or authorize the use of force. This question is, however, beyond the scope of my comments.)
Chair Khan turned from these highfalutin musings to a more prosaic and practical description of her plans for “adapting the commission’s existing authority to address and rectify unlawful data practices.” She stressed “focusing on firms whose business practices cause widespread harm”; “assessing data practices through both a consumer protection and competition lens”; and “designing effective remedies that are informed by the business strategies that specific markets favor and reward.” These suggestions are not inherently problematic, but they need to be fleshed out in far greater detail. For example, there are potentially major consumer-protection risks posed by applying antitrust to “big data” problems (see here, here and here, for example).
Khan ended her presentation by inviting us “to consider how we might need to update our [FTC] approach further yet.” Her suggested “updates” raise significant problems.
First, she stated that the FTC “is considering initiating a rulemaking to address commercial surveillance and lax data security practices.” Even assuming such a rulemaking could withstand legal scrutiny (its best shot would be to frame it as a consumer protection rule, not a competition rule), it would pose additional serious concerns. One-size-fits-all rules prevent consideration of possible economic efficiencies associated with specific data-security and surveillance practices. Thus, some beneficial practices would be wrongly condemned. Such rules would also likely deter firms from experimenting and innovating in ways that could have led to improved practices. In both cases, consumer welfare would suffer.
Second, Khan asserted “the need to reassess the frameworks we presently use to assess unlawful conduct. Specifically, I am concerned that present market realities may render the ‘notice and consent’ paradigm outdated and insufficient.” Accordingly, she recommended that “we should approach data privacy and security protections by considering substantive limits rather than just procedural protections, which tend to create process requirements while sidestepping more fundamental questions about whether certain types of data collection should be permitted in the first place.”
In support of this startling observation, Khan approvingly cites Daniel Solove’s article “The Myth of the Privacy Paradox,” which claims that “[t]he fact that people trade their privacy for products or services does not mean that these transactions are desirable in their current form. … [T]he mere fact that people make a tradeoff doesn’t mean that the tradeoff is fair, legitimate, or justifiable.”
Khan provides no economic justification for a data-collection ban. The implication that the FTC would consider banning certain types of otherwise legal data collection is at odds with free-market principles and would have disastrous economic consequences for both consumers and producers. It strikes at voluntary exchange, a basic principle of market economics that benefits transactors and enables markets to thrive.
Businesses monetize information provided by consumers to offer a host of goods and services that satisfy consumer interests. This is particularly true in the case of digital platforms. Preventing the voluntary transfer of data from consumers to producers based on arbitrary government concerns about “fairness” (for example) would strike at firms’ ability to monetize data and thereby generate additional consumer and producer surplus. The arbitrary destruction of such potential economic value by government fiat would be the essence of “unfairness.”
In particular, the consumer welfare benefits generated by digital platforms, which depend critically on large volumes of data, are enormous. As Erik Brynjolfsson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his student Avinash Collis explained in a December 2019 article in the Harvard Business Review, such benefits far exceed those measured by conventional GDP. Online choice experiments based on digital-survey techniques enabled the authors “to estimate the consumer surplus for a great variety of goods, including free ones that are missing from GDP statistics.” Brynjolfsson and Collis found, for example, that U.S. consumers derived $231 billion in value from Facebook since its inception in 2004. Furthermore:
[O]ur estimates indicate that the [Facebook] platform generates a median consumer surplus of about $500 per person annually in the United States, and at least that much for users in Europe. In contrast, average revenue per user is only around $140 per year in United States and $44 per year in Europe. In other words, Facebook operates one of the most advanced advertising platforms, yet its ad revenues represent only a fraction of the total consumer surplus it generates. This reinforces research by NYU Stern School’s Michael Spence and Stanford’s Bruce Owen that shows that advertising revenues and consumer surplus are not always correlated: People can get a lot of value from content that doesn’t generate much advertising, such as Wikipedia or email. So it is a mistake to use advertising revenues as a substitute for consumer surplus…
In a similar vein, the authors found that various user-fee-based digital services yield consumer surplus five to ten times what users paid to access them. What’s more:
The effect of consumer surplus is even stronger when you look at categories of digital goods. We conducted studies to measure it for the most popular categories in the United States and found that search is the most valued category (with a median valuation of more than $17,000 a year), followed by email and maps. These categories do not have comparable off-line substitutes, and many people consider them essential for work and everyday life. When we asked participants how much they would need to be compensated to give up an entire category of digital goods, we found that the amount was higher than the sum of the value of individual applications in it. That makes sense, since goods within a category are often substitutes for one another.
In sum, the authors found:
To put the economic contributions of digital goods in perspective, we find that including the consumer surplus value of just one digital good—Facebook—in GDP would have added an average of 0.11 percentage points a year to U.S. GDP growth from 2004 through 2017. During this period, GDP rose by an average of 1.83% a year. Clearly, GDP has been substantially underestimated over that time.
Although far from definitive, this research illustrates how a digital-services model, based on voluntary data transfer and accumulation, has brought about enormous economic welfare benefits. Accordingly, FTC efforts to tamper with such a success story on abstruse philosophical grounds not only would be unwarranted, but would be economically disastrous.
The FTC clearly plans to focus on “abuses” in private-sector data collection and usage. In so doing, it should hone in on those practices that impose clear harm to consumers, particularly in the areas of deception and fraud. It is not, however, the FTC’s role to restructure data-collection activities by regulatory fiat, through far-reaching inflexible rules and, worst of all, through efforts to ban collection of “inappropriate” information.
Such extreme actions would predictably impose substantial harm on consumers and producers. They would also slow innovation in platform practices and retard efficient welfare-generating business initiatives tied to the availability of broad collections of data. Eventually, the courts would likely strike down most harmful FTC data-related enforcement and regulatory initiatives, but substantial welfare losses (including harm due to a chilling effect on efficient business conduct) would be borne by firms and consumers in the interim. In short, the enforcement “updates” Khan recommends would reduce economic welfare—the opposite of what (one assumes) is intended.
For these reasons, the FTC should reject the chair’s overly expansive “updates.” It should instead make use of technologists, economists, and empirical research to unearth and combat economically harmful data practices. In doing so, the commission should pay attention to cost-benefit analysis and error-cost minimization. One can only hope that Khan’s fellow commissioners promptly endorse this eminently reasonable approach.