The Economics of Digitization: An Agenda for NSF. By Shane Greenstein, Josh Lerner, and Scott Stern

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1 The Economics of Digitization: An Agenda for NSF By Shane Greenstein, Josh Lerner, and Scott Stern This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA. Motivation Our starting point is the gap between research and recent changes brought about by digitization. The increasing creation, support, use, and consumption of digital representation of information touched a wide breadth of economic activities. In less than a generation digitization has transformed social interactions, facilitated entirely new industries and undermined others, and reshaped the ability of people consumers, job seekers, managers, government officials, and citizens to access and leverage information. The increasing scale of digitization has not generated a similar increase in theoretically grounded empirical research on the economic consequences of digitization. While a dispersed set of researchers address some important questions, no research community with a recognizable identity facilitates cumulative research across this community. Also, data infrastructure for cumulative, transparent, and high-quality research on digitization is poorly developed. For example, no research institution has it as a primary mission to develop novel databases related to digitization that are easy to access for follow-on researchers and policy analysts. A related gap also motivates this agenda. The impact of digitization on the economy and society at large depend on the rules and policies that govern the economic incentives to create,

2 store and use digital information. Yet, in markets shaped by digitization, objective policy analysis of key policy issues is rare, particularly from an economics perspective. This is particularly true regarding recent (or proposed) changes in governance and policy, such as in the area of copyright. Too often the policy discussion is dominated by the narrow concerns of individual stakeholders rather than objective policy analysis. An established community of economic researchers could help to bring high-quality research to the discussion, reshaping policy evaluation of the consequences of digitization. To accurately account for the impact of digitization, key characteristics of digital content must be taken into account. These features include increasing returns, zero marginal cost, and a long tail pattern of usage of digitized content. Traditional calculations evaluating the benefits of digitization have, at best, taken these fundamental features into account in only a limited way, and there are key features that have been overlooked entirely. Most notably, the existence of a wealth of free digitized information on the Internet (including a significant amount that is created by and for users) has effectively eluded systematic economic measurement. We have identified several key areas we consider priorities for investigation. Understanding changes in market structure and market conduct: Increasing digitization initiated significant shifts in market structure and significant revisions in longstanding competitive behavior in newspapers, music, movies, and other media markets. What are the relevant economic frameworks for analyzing behavior in markets for information where the costs of distributing, accessing, and sharing digital information are much lower than the costs of creating it? What determines market value when the fixed costs of creating information are large, but the costs of distributing and accessing are low or approach zero?

3 Rethinking the design of copyright: If the digitization of information has dramatically changed the form of expression, its delivery, and its use, then, perhaps, so too the policies for governing its ownership may have changed its role. Copyright law is one of the most important mechanisms for protecting intellectual property in information industries. What are the short and long run economic implications of increasing digitization for the design of copyright and its redesign? What would be the economic effects of various alternative copyright arrangements and proposals for its redesign? Redesigning incentives for innovation and creativity: In broad context copyright law is one of several mechanisms for protecting intellectual property and regulating market behavior. What new tradeoffs shape the design of other forms of intellectual property, such as patents, trade secrets, trademarks, and database protection? What types of institutions and organizations enhance the incentives for innovation and creativity while also enhancing its diffusion and impact? The Economics of Commons: Experimental forms of copyright, such as the creative commons license, have begun to play a prominent role in online experimentation and everyday online activity. Several related experimental forms of commons licenses have begun to play an important role in scientific discourse. What factors shape the returns society receives from employing commons license? What factors shape the effectiveness of different governance structures for commons licenses? The economics of privacy: Increasing digitization has altered the fundamental cost of collecting and retaining and distributing personal information. Commercial actors have the ability to learn an enormous range of details about consumer conduct, both in their online behavior and offline. What economic factors shape privacy in the new economics of digitization?

4 Measuring digitization with an eye towards open policy issues: Many of the topics just discussed require measuring one or another aspect of digitization. The measurement questions are central in some cases, supplemental in others. Measuring digitization is, alas, an underdeveloped field, so the policy discourse is underdeveloped as a result. What is the appropriate way to measure the extent of activity in digitization? What framework appropriately assesses the rate of return on investments in digitization by public and private organizations? The absence of analysis untied to stakeholders: A range of policy questions require many voices, but there is not yet a recognizable independent academic voice on a range of governance and economic policy issues affected by digitization. That independent academic voice could expresses skepticism in the face of the slanted or parochial view, and could work alongside practitioners to assemble the relevant data and answer the basic economic questions that occupy public conversation. Where will such a community come from? What needs to happen to hasten the development of such a community? Why these topics and why an economic approach to them? It is not difficult to notice that digitization shapes a large part of the economy. While there is no definitive estimate of the size of the impact from increasing digitization, there is general agreement that digitization has affected a broad range of economic activities. Symptoms arise in many domains. Moreover, because the change has arisen rapidly, the changes have been dramatic. There has been a tremendous change in the allocation of time within many households. These changes have arisen in less than one generation. According to the NTIA, for example, over 70 million US households have Internet access. More than 90% of those households have a

5 broadband connection, up from 4% a decade earlier. According to latest data from the Census Bureau, adding across various household and business markets, the Internet access market alone accounts for $45 billion in revenue. Two decades ago this market did not register more than several hundred million dollars in revenue at households (from bulletin board services). There has also been a tremendous change in the investment of business. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA, 2009), investment by US businesses in information and communication technology in 2009 was $522 billion (down from prior years). This number is symptomatic of the large changes ICTs have brought to how firms relate to their employees, customers, and business partners. For some industry specialists, the motivation seems self-evident, and no economic number can summarize the disruption of the last two decades. Increasing digitization has vastly reshaped economic activity in markets related to, and organizations built around, music, news, research, enterprise IT, logistics, retailing, reservations, and advertising, to name a few areas. What do stakeholders and researchers do in the areas related to this proposal? It is not in any present stakeholder s interest to provide the institutional commitment, provide funding, and provide management to coalesce a dispersed economic research community. Nor is it in any present stakeholder s interest to develop an institutional home and support for expertise, founded in data analysis. Nor is it in any stakeholder s interest to develop institutional support to collect, to archive, and to standardize data related to measuring the digital economy particularly, in a manner not beholden to any stakeholder. The existing economic researchers in this area lacks a community with a recognizable identity, and researchers lack the institutional commitment to support a community focused on

6 economic analysis of digitization, as well as policy analysis based on economic analysis and the measurement of digitization. These topics have attracted some interest in economics, but in no way should this activity be characterized as a unified field, or a large field. One of the healthier niches is the economics and marketing literature on the pricing of goods on and off line. So is research about market design in the search engine market and especially the related market for keyword auctions, which is a subset of the broad literature on multi-sided platforms. Researchers in these two communities do not yet address many open issues in copyright, privacy, and related topics in economic measurement. There is also a small literature on piracy online (particularly in music), and its consequences for offline sales. The literature on Schumpeterian competition has largely not focused on recent events in markets affected by digitization except in a few select areas, and usually on in areas where existing stakeholders have interests in funding research. There is a substantial group of legal scholars who study issues in intellectual property, copyright and privacy. At the same time, and in spite of some work about open source, the economics of online communities governed by Creative Commons licenses is far less developed in economics. We perceive considerable room for more economic analysis of these licenses, especially how they shape market conduct. Once again, a small amount of funding could yield high returns. Despite all the recent attention from governments, we do not see much research on the aspects that overlap with this agenda, namely, how broadband that is, widespread inexpensive access to high speed internetworking has changed user and vendor behavior in economic activity shaped by digitization.

7 Various pieces of the economy shaped by digitization do, in fact, get measured. For example, Census Service Supplements provides measures of total revenue, oriented to traditional definitions of industries, not digitization per se. The Bureau of Economic Analysis recently initiated the publication of an aggregate stock of Information and Communication Technology. There also are initiatives underway to map broadband infrastructure at the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications Information Administration. The Census Bureau s E-Stats program reports the value of goods and services sold online whether over open networks such as the Internet. The National Telecommunication Information Administration also publishes a report about Internet access at homes, using data collected as a supplement to the CPS, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics administers. Each of these efforts has their respective strengths and deficiencies, and, as a result, very little economic research has made use of this data. Besides government-sponsored surveys, a great deal of measurement of the digital economy is ad-hoc. For example, there are a range of quasi-public Internet traffic statistics & surveys: Akamai publishes statistics about web traffic, for example. So does Andrew Olydzko at University of Minnesota. As another example, Alexa and Google both publish statistics about web traffic for specific sites. The Pew Internet and American Life Project also releases general results from its many surveys about Internet adoption. Each year the survey at Pew also focuses on different (social) aspects of American use of the Internet. Unfortunately, the Pew survey tends to change focus frequently, so it has little consistency over time. There is no sustained effort to develop theoretically grounded empirical research tradition on the economic consequences of digitization, or on related policy issues. We also draw attention to the lack of institutional commitment to provide forums for objective policy research

8 with economic foundations, so there is no home for the economics and governance of copyright or Creative Commons, for example. Finally, we note the (almost) complete absence of any institutional support for data collection and economic measurement of digitization.

9 Further reading Shane Greenstein, The Economics of Digitization, An Agenda. V4.0. July 20, Accessed at Scott Stern and Michael Zhang. The Economics of Digitization and Copyright: Theoretical and Measurement Challenges, August, Mimeo. MIT Sloan School of Management.

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