Free stuff on the internet comes at a cost
FACEBOOK, whose users visit for an average of 50 minutes a day, promises members: “It’s free and always will be.” It certainly sounds like a steal. But it is only one of the bargains that apparently litter the internet: YouTube watchers devour 1bn hours of videos every day, for instance. These free lunches do come at a cost; the problem is calculating how much it is. Because consumers do not pay for many digital services in cash, beyond the cost of an internet connection, economists cannot treat these exchanges like normal transactions. The economics of free are different.
Unlike conventional merchants, companies like Facebook and Google have their users themselves produce value. information and pictures uploaded to social networks draw others to the site. Online searches, selections and “likes” teach algorithms what people want. (Now you’ve bought “The Communist Manifesto”, how about a copy of “Das Kapital”?)
The prevalence of free services is partly a result of history. In the early years of the internet, consumers became used to getting stuff for nothing. They have little idea of how much their data are worth; since digital companies have access to billions of people, the value of one person’s data is tiny anyway. More fundamentally, scarcity is not a constraint in the digital world as it is in the physical one. Data are both inexhaustible and super-cheap to transport. In 1993 MCI Mail was charging people 50 cents for the first 500 characters of a digital message, increasing by ten cents for each extra 500. The internet slashed that price to zero. Charging would have been impractical, so small is the marginal cost.
Users may pay nothing, but companies like Google and Facebook have fixed costs to cover: engineers, data centres, etc. To make money, they squeeze their users indirectly, by charging companies to put appropriate advertisements in front of captive eyeballs. In the second quarter of 2017, Facebook eked an average of $4.65 out of each of its users by peppering screens with ads and promoted posts. (By comparison, just eight cents came from payments and other fees, mainly from people paying for stuff within virtual games.)
In the absence of prices, economists struggle to work out what people are getting back when they barter their data and attention for digital services. Some evidence suggests that they are doing rather well. A recent study by Erik Brynjolfsson, Felix Eggers and Avinash Gannameneni of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offered people different cash amounts in exchange for giving up Facebook for a month. Based on the responses, they then estimated its average annual value to the consumer at around $750. A simpler survey in the same study (without real cash offers) suggested that on average people value free search engines at $16,600 per year, maps at $2,800 and video at $900.
由于不存在价格，经济学家很难计算出人们在用数据和注意力换取数字服务时实际得到了多少。一些证据显示人们得到免费服务挺值的。在较近的一项研究中，麻省理工中心的埃里克·布莱恩约弗森(Erik Brynjolfsson)、菲利克斯·艾格斯(Felix Eggers)以及阿维纳什·甘纳门耐尼(Avinash Gannameneni)向受试者给数目不等的现金，作为交换，受试者放弃使用Facebook一个月。他们根据受试者的反应估算出，对消费者来说Facebook的平均年价值在750美元左右。同一项研究中一个更简单的调查(没有真正给现金)显示，平均下来，人们对免费搜索引擎的估价为每年16,600美元，免费地图2800美元，免费视频900美元。
This sounds like a wonderful deal for the consumer, but it generates problems elsewhere. Take taxes. Professionals are not allowed to evade tax by selling their services for benefits in kind, so why should consumers not be taxed if they are paid for their data in the form of services? Statisticians also struggle in a post-price world. GDP is mostly measured by transactions at market prices. A recent study by Leonard Nakamura of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and Jon Samuels and Rachel Soloveichik of the Bureau of Economic Analysis used the amount spent on advertising to estimate uncounted output, and calculated that in 2013 American GDP should have been $19bn higher than reported.
听起来，这对于消费者是个很不错的交易，但它却在其他方面引发了问题，比如税收。既然不允许*以*服务换取实物福利的方式逃税，那如果消费者给了数据而以服务的形式获得报酬，他们怎么就可以不交税?统计人员同样因为无价格领域而为难。GDP大多由以市场价成交的交易来衡量。在较近一项研究中，费城联邦储备银行的莱纳德·纳卡穆拉(Leonard Nakamura)以及美国商务部经济分析局(BEA)的乔恩·塞缪尔斯(Jon Samuels)、雷切尔·索洛维切克(Rachel Soloveichik)通过广告费来估算未计入的产值，估测出2013年美国GDP应该比实际报告的多190亿美元。
Privacy activists also worry. Consumers tend to respond much more strongly to “free” offers than to prices that are only fractionally higher than zero. When Amazon first offered free shipping in European countries, orders surged—but not in France, where by mistake it charged around ten cents. The activists’ concern is that the “free” label fosters poor decisions, making people, for example, reveal more about themselves than they would in a more formal exchange. Researchers talk of the “privacy paradox”: when asked, people say that they care much more about their privacy than their actions would suggest.
The free economy also troubles competition authorities. Excessive market power can be defined as the ability to raise prices above what would be charged in a competitive market. With no prices to compare, and other options only a click away, companies such as Google seem to operate in an environment of cut-throat competition. It is naive to think so. Consumers are more captive than the low cost of switching might imply. Google, for example, commands a market share for internet search of over 90% in most countries in the European Union, where antitrust authorities in June fined it €2.4bn ($2.7bn) for promoting its own comparison shopping services above its competitors’. Its services may have been free, but the trustbusters judged that its market power was curbing consumers’ choices. In the absence of prices, lack of competition will show up in other ways: demanding more information from users than they want to give, for example; or irritating them by stuffing their service chock-full of adverts.
No such thing as a free exchange
Opinion is divided on whether the free economy needs fixing, and if so, how. In his book “Who Owns the Future?”, Jaron Lanier suggests that tiny payments for digital contributions might correct yet another problem, a misallocation of labour. If companies paid people for useful data, rather than mopping up what they leave behind as they use online services, then prices could nudge people towards more productive online activity. Others advocate tougher regulation, mandating that consumers have the option of paying for a version of their social-media platforms free of advertisements and digital profiles. Neither seems imminent, and each comes with its own problems. But both would at least force people to start counting the cost of that priceless lunch.
免费经济是否需要修正?如果需要，该怎么修正?对此人们意见不一。杰伦·拉尼尔(Jaron Lanier)在《谁拥有未来》(Who Owns the Future?)一书中表示，如果用户在网络上的贡献能得到哪怕很少的报酬，可能还会纠正另一个问题——劳动力分配不当。假设公司为有用的数据向人们付费，而不是将他们使用网络服务时留下的信息“一网打尽”，那么价格可能会将人们推向更富效益的网络活动。另一些人倡导更严厉的监管——规定消费者可以付费来选用一个没有广告也无需给个人资料的社交媒体平台。以上两种措施似乎都不会很快到来，而且也都有各自的问题。但是至少两者都会迫使人们开始计算——这种免费午餐究竟代价几何?