Book Review: All You Can Pay: How Companies Use Our Data to Empty Our Wallets

By Jesse Jinna Ruiz

All You Can Pay: How Companies Use Our Data to Empty Our Wallets explains how Big Data companies are not just emptying our wallets but changing our world. Authors Anna Bernasek and D.T. Mongan illustrate through easy to understand stories and thoughtful analysis how the use of data is changing the economy. From price discrimination to dynamic pricing and customization, Big Data is dismantling the traditional free market economy.

But what is the free market and why does it matter? The free market is a market where buyers and sellers “willingly exchange goods and services for mutual benefit.” (p.172) This supposed perfect free market is hypothetical because nothing is actually perfect. But we rely on the free market to establish a few conditions: (1) there’s a large number of buyers and sellers who have power of choice to exchange goods, (2) there’s no transaction costs, (3) there are commodity products on the market (meaning there are lots of products to choose from), and (4) everything runs on information (and hopefully, everyone has access to that information). But as we can guess, the Big Data companies breakdown all of the conditions of the free market.

In a perfect world, everyone would have access to information equally and no one would be able to take advantage of someone because of information. But this doesn’t really exist—not even in the free market—and the Big Data giants increasingly have all the power with access to our data. The Big Data companies also have the power to impose transaction costs and control other aspects of pricing. “Product customization, opaque pricing, and complex contracts are poised to expand from their natural origins in the world of services to all other sectors of the economy.” (p.177) And eventually “the macroeconomic effect of the end of the free market will be a general rise in price levels as the masters of data capture enormous profits. To the consumer, it will be something like living in an airport.” (p.179)

Bernasek and Mongan explain all the mechanisms of control and power that the Big Data companies hold with their data capabilities. The problem is that there is little government oversight and little public knowledge of this growing problem. So the first thing readers should take away from this book is that data is a property that belongs to the people. The authors call for readers to take more responsibility in fighting for the property rights associated with data. “All data is property.” (p.197) And the authors call for collective actions to take control over our data before it’s too late.

There are two tools in particular that the authors cite to achieve successful collective action: the law of property and the law of contract. “Personal data, particularly intimate, extensive, panoptic data, is a physical reality. Data is touchable and ownable. And it seems unarguable that deeply identifying personal data, the granular portraits of our lives and personalities made possible by big data, is owned by the individual it relates to. That data can be sold or rented or regulated according to personal choice. And that’s where the law of contract comes in. Individuals can contractually control the use of their data.” (p.215) All You Can Pay illuminates ethical concerns of data-driven corporations, educates on the economic impact of Big Data and recommends ways to control and alleviate the power imbalance. Read this book if you want to learn more about the economic mechanisms behind data-driven business, the ethical questions that result, and learn part of the history of how data giants became what they are today.