How we sold our privacy piecemeal

Apr 2, JDN 2457846

The US Senate just narrowly voted to remove restrictions on the sale of user information by Internet Service Providers. Right now, your ISP can basically sell your information to whomever they like without even telling you. The new rule that the Senate struck down would have required them to at least make you sign a form with some fine print on it, which you probably would sign without reading it. So in practical terms maybe it makes no difference.

…or does it? Maybe that’s really the mistake we’ve been making all along.

In cognitive science we have a concept called the just-noticeable difference (JND); it is basically what it sounds like. If you have two stimuli—two colors, say, or sounds of two different pitches—that differ by an amount smaller than the JND, people will not notice it. But if they differ by more than the JND, people will notice. (In practice it’s a bit more complicated than that, as different people have different JND thresholds and even within a person they can vary from case to case based on attention or other factors. But there’s usually a relatively narrow range of JND values, such that anything below that is noticed by no one and anything above that is noticed by almost everyone.)

The JND seems like an intuitively obvious concept—of course you can’t tell the difference between a color of 432.78 nanometers and 432.79 nanometers!—but it actually has profound implications. In particular it undermines the possibility of having truly transitive preferences. If you prefer some colors to others—which most of us do—but you have a nonzero JND in color wavelengths—as we all do—then I can do the following: Find one color you like (for concreteness, say you like blue of 475 nm), and another color you don’t (say green of 510 nm). Let you choose between the blue you like and another blue, 475.01 nm. Will you prefer one to the other? Of course not, the difference is within your JND. So now compare 475.01 nm and 475.02 nm; which do you prefer? Again, you’re indifferent. And I can go on and on this way a few thousand times, until finally I get to 510 nanometers, the green you didn’t like. I have just found a chain of your preferences that is intransitive; you said A = B = C = D… all the way down the line to X = Y = Z… but then at the end you said A > Z. Your preferences aren’t transitive, and therefore aren’t well-defined rational preferences. And you could do the same to me, so neither are mine.

Part of the reason we’ve so willingly given up our privacy in the last generation or so is our paranoid fear of terrorism, which no doubt triggers deep instincts about tribal warfare. Depressingly, the plurality of Americans think that our government has not gone far enough in its obvious overreaches of the Constitution in the name of defending us from a threat that has killed fewer Americans in my lifetime than die from car accidents each month.

But that doesn’t explain why we—and I do mean we, for I am as guilty as most—have so willingly sold our relationships to Facebook and our schedules to Google. Google isn’t promising to save me from the threat of foreign fanatics; they’re merely offering me a more convenient way to plan my activities. Why, then, am I so cavalier about entrusting them with so much personal data?


Well, I didn’t start by giving them my whole life. I created an email account, which I used on occasion. I tried out their calendar app and used it to remind myself when my classes were. And so on, and so forth, until now Google knows almost as much about me as I know about myself.

At each step, it didn’t feel like I was doing anything of significance; perhaps indeed it was below my JND. Each bit of information I was giving didn’t seem important, and perhaps it wasn’t. But all together, our combined information allows Google to make enormous amounts of money without charging most of its users a cent.

The process goes something like this. Imagine someone offering you a penny in exchange for telling them how many times you made left turns last week. You’d probably take it, right? Who cares how many left turns you made last week? But then they offer another penny in exchange for telling them how many miles you drove on Tuesday. And another penny for telling them the average speed you drive during the afternoon. This process continues hundreds of times, until they’ve finally given you say $5.00—and they know exactly where you live, where you work, and where most of your friends live, because all that information was encoded in the list of driving patterns you gave them, piece by piece.

Consider instead how you’d react if someone had offered, “Tell me where you live and work and I’ll give you $5.00.” You’d be pretty suspicious, wouldn’t you? What are they going to do with that information? And $5.00 really isn’t very much money. Maybe there’s a price at which you’d part with that information to a random suspicious stranger—but it’s probably at least $50 or even more like $500, not $5.00. But by asking it in 500 different questions for a penny each, they can obtain that information from you at a bargain price.

If you work out how much money Facebook and Google make from each user, it’s actually pitiful. Facebook has been increasing their revenue lately, but it’s still less than $20 per user per year. The stranger asks, “Tell me who all your friends are, where you live, where you were born, where you work, and what your political views are, and I’ll give you $20.” Do you take that deal? Apparently, we do. Polls find that most Americans are willing to exchange privacy for valuable services, often quite cheaply.


Of course, there isn’t actually an alternative social network that doesn’t sell data and instead just charges a subscription fee. I don’t think this is a fundamentally unfeasible business model, but it hasn’t succeeded so far, and it will have an uphill battle for two reasons.

The first is the obvious one: It would have to compete with Facebook and Google, who already have the enormous advantage of a built-in user base of hundreds of millions of people.

The second one is what this post is about: The social network based on conventional economics rather than selling people’s privacy can’t take advantage of the JND.

I suppose they could try—charge $0.01 per month at first, then after awhile raise it to $0.02, $0.03 and so on until they’re charging $2.00 per month and actually making a profit—but that would be much harder to pull off, and it would provide the least revenue when it is needed most, at the early phase when the up-front costs of establishing a network are highest. Moreover, people would still feel that; it’s a good feature of our monetary system that you can’t break money into small enough denominations to really consistently hide under the JND. But information can be broken down into very tiny pieces indeed. Much of the revenue earned by these corporate giants is actually based upon indexing the keywords of the text we write; we literally sell off our privacy word by word.


What should we do about this? Honestly, I’m not sure. Facebook and Google do in fact provide valuable services, without which we would be worse off. I would be willing to pay them their $20 per year, if I could ensure that they’d stop selling my secrets to advertisers. But as long as their current business model keeps working, they have little incentive to change. There is in fact a huge industry of data brokering, corporations you’ve probably never heard of that make their revenue entirely from selling your secrets.

In a rare moment of actual journalism, TIME ran an article about a year ago arguing that we need new government policy to protect us from this kind of predation of our privacy. But they had little to offer in the way of concrete proposals.

The ACLU does better: They have specific proposals for regulations that should be made to protect our information from the most harmful prying eyes. But as we can see, the current administration has no particular interest in pursuing such policies—if anything they seem to do the opposite.

The Warren Rule is a good start

JDN 2457243 EDT 10:40.

As far back as 2010, Elizabeth Warren proposed a simple regulation on the reporting of CEO compensation that was then built into Dodd-Frank—but the SEC has resisted actually applying that rule for five years; only now will it actually take effect (and by “now” I mean over the next two years). For simplicity I’ll refer to that rule as the Warren Rule, though I don’t see a lot of other people doing that (most people don’t give it a name at all).

Two things are important to understand about this rule, which both undercut its effectiveness and make all the right-wing whinging about it that much more ridiculous.

1. It doesn’t actually place any limits on CEO compensation or employee salaries; it merely requires corporations to consistently report the ratio between them. Specifically, the rule says that every publicly-traded corporation must report the ratio between the “total compensation” of their CEO and the median salary (with benefits) of their employees; wisely, it includes foreign workers (with a few minor exceptions—lobbyists fought for more but fortunately Warren stood firm), so corporations can’t simply outsource everything but management to make it look like they pay their employees more. Unfortunately, it does not include contractors, which is awful; expect to see corporations working even harder to outsource their work to “contractors” who are actually employees without benefits (not that they weren’t already). The greatest victory here will be for economists, who now will have more reliable data on CEO compensation; and for consumers, who will now find it more salient just how overpaid America’s CEOs really are.

2. While it does wisely cover “total compensation”, that isn’t actually all the money that CEOs receive for owning and operating corporations. It includes salaries, bonuses, benefits, and newly granted stock options—it does not include the value of stock options previously exercised or dividends received from stock the CEO already owns.

TIME screwed this up; they took at face value when Larry Page reported a $1 “total compensation”, which technically is true by how “total compensation” is defined; he received a $1 token salary and no new stock awards. But Larry Page has net wealth of over $38 billion; about half of that is Google stock, so even if we ignore all others, on Google’s PE ratio of about 25, Larry Page received at least $700 million in Google retained earnings alone. (In my personal favorite unit of wealth, Page receives about 3 romneys a year in retained earnings.) No, TIME, he is not the lowest-paid CEO in the world; he has simply structured his income so that it comes entirely from owning shares instead of receiving a salary. Most top CEOs do this, so be wary when it says a Fortune 500 CEO received only $2 million, and completely ignore it when it says a CEO received only $1. Probably in the former case and definitely in the latter, their real money is coming from somewhere else.

Of course, the complaints about how this is an unreasonable demand on businesses are totally absurd. Most of them keep track of all this data anyway; it’s simply a matter of porting it from one spreadsheet to another. (I also love the argument that only “idiosyncratic investors” will care; yeah, what sort of idiot would care about income inequality or be concerned how much of their investment money is going directly to line a single person’s pockets?) They aren’t complaining because it will be a large increase in bureaucracy or a serious hardship on their businesses; they’re complaining because they think it might work. Corporations are afraid that if they have to publicly admit how overpaid their CEOs are, they might actually be pressured to pay them less. I hope they’re right.

CEO pay is set in a very strange way; instead of being based on an estimate of how much they are adding to the company, a CEO’s pay is typically set as a certain margin above what the average CEO is receiving. But then as the process iterates and everyone tries to be above average, pay keeps rising, more or less indefinitely. Anyone with a basic understanding of statistics could have seen this coming, but somehow thousands of corporations didn’t—or else simply didn’t care.

Most people around the world want the CEO-to-employee pay ratio to be dramatically lower than it is. Indeed, unrealistically lower, in my view. Most countries say only 6 to 1, while Scandinavia says only 2 to 1. I want you to think about that for a moment; if the average employee at a corporation makes $50,000, people in Scandinavia think the CEO should only make $100,000, and people elsewhere think the CEO should only make $300,000? I’m honestly not sure what would happen to our economy if we made such a rule. There would be very little incentive to want to become a CEO; why bear all that fierce competition and get blamed for everything to make only twice as much as you would as an average employee?

On the other hand, most CEOs don’t actually do all that much; CEO pay is basically uncorrelated with company performance. Maybe it would be better if they weren’t paid very much, or even if we didn’t have them at all. But under our current system, capping CEO pay also caps the pay of basically everyone else; the CEO is almost always the highest-paid individual in any corporation.

I guess that’s really the problem. We need to find ways to change the overall attitude of our society that higher authority necessarily comes with higher pay; that isn’t a rational assessment of marginal productivity, it’s a recapitulation of our primate instincts for a mating hierarchy. He’s the alpha male, of course he gets all the bananas.

The president of a university should make next to nothing compared to the top scientists at that university, because the president is a useless figurehead and scientists are the foundation of universities—and human knowledge in general. Scientists are actually the one example I can think of where one individual trulycan be one million times as productive as another—though even then I don’t think that justifies paying them one million times as much.

Most corporations should be structured so that managers make moderate incomes and the highest incomes go to engineers and designers, the people who have the highest skills and do the most important work. A car company without managers seems like an interesting experiment in employee ownership. A car company without engineers seems like an oxymoron.

Finally, people who work in finance should make very low incomes, because they don’t actually do very much. Bank tellers are probably paid about what they should be; stock traders and hedge fund managers should be paid like bank tellers. (Or rather, there shouldn’t be stock traders and hedge funds as we know them; this is all pure waste. A really efficient financial system would be extremely simple, because finance actually is very simple—people who have money loan it to people who need it, and in return receive more money later. Everything else is just elaborations on that, and most of these elaborations are really designed to obscure, confuse, and manipulate.)

Oddly enough, the place where we do this best is the nation as a whole; the President of the United States would be astonishingly low-paid if we thought of him as a CEO. Only about $450,000 including expense accounts, for a “corporation” with revenue of nearly $3 trillion? (Suppose instead we gave the President 1% of tax revenue; that would be $30 billion per year. Think about how absurdly wealthy our leaders would be if we gave them stock options, and be glad that we don’t do that.)

But placing a hard cap at 2 or even 6 strikes me as unreasonable. Even during the 1950s the ratio was about 20 to 1, and it’s been rising ever since. I like Robert Reich’s proposal of a sliding scale of corporate taxes; I also wouldn’t mind a hard cap at a higher figure, like 50 or 100. Currently the average CEO makes about 350 times as much as the average employee, so even a cap of 100 would substantially reduce inequality.
A pay ratio cap could actually be a better alternative to a minimum wage, because it can adapt to market conditions. If the economy is really so bad that you must cut the pay of most of your workers, well, you’d better cut your own pay as well. If things are going well and you can afford to raise your own pay, your workers should get a share too. We never need to set some arbitrary amount as the minimum you are allowed to pay someone—but if you want to pay your employees that little, you won’t be paid very much yourself.

The biggest reason to support the Warren Rule, however, is awareness. Most people simply have no idea of how much CEOs are actually paid. When asked to estimate the ratio between CEO and employee pay, most people around the world underestimate by a full order of magnitude.

Here are some graphs from a sampling of First World countries. I used data from this paper in Perspectives on Psychological Sciencethe fact that it’s published in a psychology journal tells you a lot about the academic turf wars involved in cognitive economics.

The first shows the absolute amount of average worker pay (not adjusted for purchasing power) in each country. Notice how the US is actually near the bottom, despite having one of the strongest overall economies and not particularly high purchasing power:


The second shows the absolute amount of average CEO pay in each country; I probably don’t even need to mention how the US is completely out of proportion with every other country.


And finally, the ratio of the two. One of these things is not like the other ones…


So obviously the ratio in the US is far too high. But notice how even in Poland, the ratio is still 28 to 1. In order to drop to the 6 to 1 ratio that most people seem to think would be ideal, we would need to dramatically reform even the most equal nations in the world. Denmark and Norway should particularly think about whether they really believe that 2 to 1 is the proper ratio, since they are currently some of the most equal (not to mention happiest) nations in the world, but their current ratios are still 48 and 58 respectively. You can sustain a ratio that high and still have universal prosperity; every adult citizen in Norway is a millionaire in local currency. (Adjusting for purchasing power, it’s not quite as impressive; instead the guaranteed wealth of a Norwegian citizen is “only” about $100,000.)

Most of the world’s population simply has no grasp of how extreme economic inequality has become. Putting the numbers right there in people’s faces should help with this, though if the figures only need to be reported to investors that probably won’t make much difference. But hey, it’s a start.