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Privacy, Publicity, and Choice

  • Andrew F. Daughety

    ()

    (Department of Economics and Law School, Vanderbilt University)

  • Jennifer F. Reinganum

    ()

    (Department of Economics and Law School, Vanderbilt University)

We develop and explore a new model of the economics of privacy. Previous work has focused on "privacy of type," wherein an agent privately knows an immutable characteristic. We consider "privacy of action," wherein privacy means that an agent's choice of action is unobservable to others. To show how a policy of privacy can be socially optimal, we assume that an agent derives utility from an action he takes, from the aggregate of all agents' actions, and from other agents' perceptions of the agent's type (that are based on his action). If his action is observable, then he distorts it (relative to his full-information optimal action) so as to enhance the perceptions that others have of him. This contributes to aggregate welfare through increasing the public good, but the disutility associated with the distortion of agents' actions is also a social cost. If his action is unobservable, then he can take his full-information optimal action and still be "pooled" with other types. When the disutility of distortion is high relative to the marginal utility of the public good, a policy of privacy is optimal. We also consider a policy of waivable privacy, and find that equilibria exist in which some, but not all, types waive privacy. More significantly, if policies of privacy or publicity are costlessly enforceable, then a policy of waivable privacy is never socially preferred. Finally, we consider a number of examples (some of which involve a public bad and/or social disapproval): open-source software development; charitable giving; recycling; consumption of health services; DNA dragnets; student rankings; constraints on information disclosure at trial; electricity and water usage during periods of voluntary rationing; shaming of speeders; and the use of earmarks by Congress.

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File URL: http://www.accessecon.com/pubs/VUECON/vu08-w09.pdf
File Function: First version, 2008
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Paper provided by Vanderbilt University Department of Economics in its series Vanderbilt University Department of Economics Working Papers with number 0809.

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Date of creation: May 2008
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Handle: RePEc:van:wpaper:0809
Contact details of provider: Web page: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/econ/wparchive/index.html

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  1. Romano, Richard & Yildirim, Huseyin, 2001. "Why charities announce donations: a positive perspective," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 81(3), pages 423-447, September.
  2. Alessandro Acquisti & Hal R. Varian, 2005. "Conditioning Prices on Purchase History," Marketing Science, INFORMS, vol. 24(3), pages 367-381, May.
  3. Paul R. Milgrom, 1979. "Good Nevs and Bad News: Representation Theorems and Applications," Discussion Papers 407R, Northwestern University, Center for Mathematical Studies in Economics and Management Science.
  4. Linardi, Sera & McConnell, Margaret A., 2008. "Volunteering and image concerns," Working Papers 1282, California Institute of Technology, Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences.
  5. Curtis R. Taylor, 2004. "Consumer Privacy and the Market for Customer Information," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 35(4), pages 631-650, Winter.
  6. Giacomo Calzolari & Alessandro Pavan, 2004. "On the Optimality of Privacy in Sequential Contracting," Discussion Papers 1394, Northwestern University, Center for Mathematical Studies in Economics and Management Science.
  7. Harbaugh, William T., 1998. "What do donations buy?: A model of philanthropy based on prestige and warm glow," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 67(2), pages 269-284, February.
  8. Daughety, A. & Reinganum, J., 1991. "Keeping Society in the Dark : On the Admissibility of Pretrial Nogotiations as Evidence in Court," Working Papers 91-24, University of Iowa, Department of Economics.
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