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              Free exchange







              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 steal①. But it is only one of the bargains that apparently litter the internet: YouTube watchers devour② 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.


              ① be a steal:informal to be very cheap 非常便宜

              例:an excellent seafood dish that is a steal at 8.25 一道 8.25 美元價廉物美的海鮮

              ② devour:to read something quickly and eagerly, or watch something with great interest 如饑似渴地閱讀;津津有味地看

              例:He devoured science fiction books. 他如饑似渴地讀科幻小說。


              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”?)

              有別于傳統商家,Facebook 和谷歌這樣的公司讓用戶自己來為它們創造價值。上傳到社交網絡的信息和圖片會將其他人吸引過來。在線搜索、選擇和“點贊”讓算法了解人們的需求。比如,既然你買了本《共產黨宣言》,那是否考慮再買一本《資本論》呢?


              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 eyeball. In the second quarter of 2017, Facebook eked④ an average of $4.65 out of each of its users by peppering③ 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.)


              ③ eke:to make a small supply of something such as food or money last longer by carefully using small amounts of it 精打細算地維持;盡量節省使用

              例:How did she manage to eke out the food? 她是怎樣想方設法節省食物的呢?

              ④ pepper:[usually passive,一般用被動態] if something is peppered with things, it has a lot of those things in it or on it 在…上大量撒;使…布滿

              例:be peppered with sth

              a speech peppered with amusing stories 穿插了許多有趣故事的演講

              The surface of the moon is peppered with craters. 月球表面布滿隕石坑。



              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.

              由于不存在價格,經濟學家很難計算出人們在用數據和注意力換取數字服務時實際得到了多少。一些證據顯示人們得到免費服務挺值的。在最近的一項研究中,麻省理工學院的埃里克·布萊恩約弗森(Erik Brynjolfsson)、菲利克斯·艾格斯(Felix Eggers)以及阿維納什·甘納門耐尼(Avinash Gannameneni)向受試者提供數目不等的現金,作為交換,受試者放棄使用Facebook一個月。他們根據受試者的反應估算出,對消費者來說Facebook的平均年價值在750美元左右。同一項研究中一個更簡單的調查(沒有真正提供現金)顯示,平均下來,人們對免費搜索引擎的估價為每年16,600美元,免費地圖2800美元,免費視頻900美元。


              This sounds like a wonderful deal for the consumer, but it generates problems elsewhere. Taketaxes. 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.

              聽起來,這對于消費者是個很不錯的交易,但它卻在其他方面引發了問題,比如稅收。既然不允許專業人士以出售服務換取實物福利的方式逃稅,那如果消費者提供了數據而以服務的形式獲得報酬,他們怎么就可以不交稅?統計人員同樣因為無價格領域而為難。GDP大多由以市場價成交的交易來衡量。在最近一項研究中,費城聯邦儲備銀行的萊納德·納卡穆拉(Leonard Nakamura)以及美國商務部經濟分析局(BEA)的喬恩·塞繆爾斯(Jon Samuels)、雷切爾·索洛維切克(Rachel Soloveichik)通過廣告費來估算未計入的產值,估測出2013年美國GDP應該比實際報告的多190億美元。


              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.

              免費經濟是否需要修正?如果需要,該怎么修正?對此人們意見不一。杰倫·拉尼爾(Jaron Lanier)在《誰擁有未來》(Who Owns the Future?)一書中表示,如果用戶在網絡上的貢獻能得到哪怕很少的報酬,可能還會糾正另一個問題——勞動力分配不當。假設公司為有用的數據向人們付費,而不是將他們使用網絡服務時留下的信息“一網打盡”,那么價格可能會將人們向更富效益的網絡活動。另一些人倡導更嚴厲的監管——規定消費者可以付費來選用一個沒有廣告也無需提供個人資料的社交媒體平臺。以上兩種措施似乎都不會很快到來,而且也都有各自的問題。但是至少兩者都會迫使人們開始計算——這種免費午餐究竟代價幾何?

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