Viewing information strictly as a commodity limits rather than expands our understanding of the “information society” and the “information economy.” Although we must now contend with new types of information-e.g. personal genetic markers-as well as old types of information in new contexts-e.g. textual information distributed over the World Wide Web-the worldview which perceives and situates information as a commodity is as old as notions of intellectual property dating back to the Renaissance. What is needed, among other things, is a framework which takes seriously the distinctly modern interaction of personal information and market activity and its impact on economic fairness. Issues of information and fairness have received attention in the economics literature, but current developments in information and communication technology raise them to new prominence. It behooves us, then, to carefully consider how an information economy should relate to the society in which it operates.
The example discussed here is the customer loyalty programs used by many supermarkets in the United States and the United Kingdom (and perhaps in other countries as well). These programs reward shoppers with discounts and other forms of compensation in return for allowing their purchases to be tracked as well as matched against demographic profiles. From the standpoint of information as a commodity (which overlaps with the data subject/data user model underlying much privacy regulation), this is a straightforward economic transaction. However, from the perspective of economic fairness, this constitutes a significant information imbalance which can enable, among other practices, highly targeted preferential pricing schemes. Preferential pricing can be offered to identified individuals (as opposed to groups or the public in general) on the basis of information which has been collected precisely for that purpose (rather than being a necessary part of a previous transaction).
This suggests that there may well be a regulatory role for governments in situations where new information asymmetries may affect the fairness of economic transactions. There is clear precedent for such regulations, at least in the United States, in the prohibitions against “insider” stock trading. More mundane examples are consumer protection laws requiring disclosure of information such as nutritional data for packaged food. And certainly there is substantial precedent in many countries for government regulation aimed at rectifying market distortions in general. Yet, the implications for market fairness of the commodification of private information have been all but ignored. This paper suggests that treating personal information as a commodity increasingly carries with it the potential for diminished fairness in the operation of market mechanisms.