analytic price discrimination is becoming a real pain in the ass

Via Tim O’Reilly’s twitter feed I see that Orbitz is experimenting with showing different results to Mac users than PC users, based on the observation that Mac users tend to spend more money. The Orbitz folks claim that the price for a given hotel room is the same for everyone: they’re just showing a different selection of options. Well, fine. Presumably other firms have just gone ahead and begun quoting a higher price to certain users based on their browser (one Australian firm recently decided to discourage IE7 use grab some cheap PR by doing so as loudly as possible). I’ve seen suspicious pricing games around online travel in the past.

My thoughtful economist friends will be quick to point out that price discrimination allows markets behave more efficiently, and in fact helps to keep prices down for those who are less able to pay.  In a certain sense that all makes sense; and yes, my yuppie, Mac-owning ass probably should be squeezed for every dollar it’s good for.

Still: it’s irritating! And, when this process takes the more time-consuming form of, say, Tim’s periodic haggling with Comcast, it seems extremely inefficient. I can imagine solutions that free up Tim’s time: perhaps Fancy Hands will begin offering a cheap “Yell At Comcast” subscription with a money-back guarantee.  Similarly, I can simply start spoofing my browser’s user agent when I shop online (probably not a bad idea in general — you leak a surprisingly large amount of information that way). But why should I have to throw money at a middleman for that service? Why should the technically useful information contained in a user agent string have to be deliberately destroyed?

It makes me wonder what Hayek would say about all of this. It’s hard to imagine exactly what negative effects even an e-commerce behemoth like Amazon could cause were it to start monkeying with price signals in an effort to do a little social or behavioral engineering. It still strikes me as a generally bad idea, though — and  consistent with the idea of our markets (and every other societal system) growing ever more baroque, ever more filled with cruft, ever more ossified and inflexible. We filled up our tax code with this garbage; before long I suppose every retailer with a Google Analytics account will gin up their own microscopically small cross-subsidization scheme as well, as they aspire to make consumer behavior less about considered responses to pricing and more about aspects of the buyer’s identity that aren’t easily escaped.

This is perhaps a maximally gloomy interpretation of what amounts to a pretty minor incident in the evolution of personalized search. But what can I say, I’m feeling cranky.