The iPhone flap and the anatomy of a privacy panic

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I’ve written a long article this morning for CNET (See “Privacy panic debate:  Whose data is it?”) on the discovery of the iPhone location tracking file and the utterly predictable panic response that followed.  Its life-cycle follows precisely the crisis model Adam Thierer has so frequently and eloquently traced, most recently at the Technology Liberation Front.

In particular, the CNET article takes a close and serious look at Richard Thaler’s column in Saturday’s New York Times, “Show us the data.  (It’s ours, after all.)” Thaler uses the iPhone scare as occassion to propose a regulatory fix to the “problem” of users being unable to access in “computer-friendly form” copies of the information “collected on” them by merchants. 

That information, Thaler assumes, is a discreet kind of property and must, since it refers to customer behavior, be the sole property of the customer, “lent” to the merchant and reclaimable at any time.

Information can certainly be treated as if it were property, and often is under law.  Personally, I don’t find the property metaphor to be the most useful in dealing with intangibles, but if you’re going to go there you need to understand the economics of how information behaves in ways very different to physical property.  (See my chapter on the subject in “The Next Digital Decade.”)

Thaler’s “proposed rule” is wrong on the facts (he doesn’t seem to know how cell phone bills really look, and he certainly doesn’t understand how supermarket club cards operate–and these are his leading examples of the “problem”), wrong on the law, and even wrong on the business and economics.  (Other than that, it’s a pretty good article!)

This kind of intellectual frivolity is par for the course with many academic economists.  Thaler is at the University of Chicago’s business school, and describes himself as an economist and behavioral scientist.  That means instead of throwing around calculus all day, he devises toy experiments with a few subjects–or reads the findings of other behavioral scientists who have done the same.

Not only is the article bad privacy policy, it’s bad economics.  The latter is certainly the more serious concern.  Nearly 70 years after Ronald Coase called on economists to put down the pencil and paper methods and do actual empirical research in how markets actually work, the profession has if anything become more insular.  There are exceptions, of course, but they stand out in a field of mediocrity.

Which is too bad.  We need good economists now, more than ever.