Porat on Behavior-Based Price Discrimination and Consumer Protection in the Age of Algorithms

Haggai Porat (Harvard Law School; Tel Aviv University School of Economics) has posted “Behavior-Based Price Discrimination and Consumer Protection in the Age of Algorithms” on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The legal literature on price discrimination focuses primarily on consumers’ immutable features, like when higher interest rates are offered to black borrowers and higher prices to women at car dealerships. This paper examines a different type of discriminatory pricing practice: behavior-based pricing (BBP), where prices are set based on consumers’ behavior, most prominently their prior purchasing decisions. The increased use of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to set prices has facilitated the growing penetration of BBP in various markets. Unlike race-based and sex-based discrimination, with BBP, consumers can strategically adjust their behavior to impact the prices they will be offered in the future. Sellers, in turn, can adjust prices in early periods to influence consumers’ purchasing decisions so as to increase the informational value of these decisions and thereby maximize profits. This paper analyzes possible legal responses to BBP and arrives at three surprising policy implications: One, when non-BBP discrimination is efficient but with potentially problematic distributional implications, BBP can either increase or decrease efficiency. Two, even if BBP is desirable, mandating its disclosure may reduce overall welfare even though this would reduce informational asymmetry in the market. Three, a right to be forgotten (a right to erasure) may be desirable even though it increases informational asymmetry.