Professor in Political Science and Computer and Information Science

David Lazer

Measuring Price Discrimination and Steering on E-commerce Web Sites

Peer Reviewed Computer Science Conference
Publication date: 
Ancsa Hannak
Gary Soeller
David Lazer
Alan Mislove
Christo Wilson
Measuring Price Discrimination and Steering on E-commerce Web Sites

Today, many e-commerce websites personalize their content, including Netix (movie recommendations), Amazon (product suggestions), and Yelp (business reviews). In many cases, personalization provides advantages for users: for example, when a user searches for an ambiguous query such as \router," Amazon may be able to suggest the woodworking tool instead of the networking device. However, personalization on e-commerce sites may also be used to the user's disadvantage by manipulating the products shown (price steering) or by customizing the prices of products (price discrimination). Unfortunately, today, we lack the tools and techniques necessary to be able to detect such behavior. In this paper, we make three contributions towards addressing this problem. First, we develop a methodology for accurately measuring when price steering and discrimination occur and implement it for a variety of e-commerce web sites. While it may seem conceptually simple to detect differences between users' results, accurately attributing these differences to price discrimination and steering requires correctly addressing a number of sources of noise. Second, we use the accounts and cookies of over 300 real-world users to detect price steering and discrimination on 16 popular e-commerce sites. We find evidence for some form of personalization on nine of these e-commerce sites. Third, we investigate the effect of user behaviors on personalization. We create fake accounts to simulate different user features including web browser/OS choice, owning an account, and history of purchased or viewed products. Overall, we find numerous instances of price steering and discrimination on a variety of top e-commerce sites. Copyright

Research Areas TOC

Computational Social Science, Collective Cognition

Computational Social Science, 21st Century Democracy, Political Networks

DNA and the Criminal Justice System

21st Century Democracy, Political Networks