Greg Ip

Articles by The Economist’s U.S. Economics Editor

Net benefits

leave a comment »

How to quantify the gains that the internet has brought to consumers

Mar 9th 2013 |From the print edition

[Greg Ip] WHEN her two-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer in 1992, Judy Mollica spent hours in a nearby medical library in south Florida, combing through journals for information about her child’s condition. Upon seeing an unfamiliar term she would stop and hunt down its meaning elsewhere in the library. It was, she says, like “walking in the dark”. Her daughter recovered but in 2005 was diagnosed with a different form of cancer. This time, Ms Mollica was able to stay by her side. She could read articles online, instantly look up medical and scientific terms on Wikipedia, and then follow footnotes to new sources. She could converse with her daughter’s specialists like a fellow doctor. Wikipedia, she says, not only saved her time but gave her a greater sense of control. “You can’t put a price on that.”

Measuring the economic impact of all the ways the internet has changed people’s lives is devilishly difficult because so much of it has no price. It is easier to quantify the losses Wikipedia has inflicted on encyclopedia publishers than the benefits it has generated for users like Ms Mollica. This problem is an old one in economics. GDP measures monetary transactions, not welfare. Consider someone who would pay $50 for the latest Harry Potter novel but only has to pay $20. The $30 difference represents a non-monetary benefit called “consumer surplus”. The amount of internet activity that actually shows up in GDP—Google’s ad sales, for example—significantly understates its contribution to welfare by excluding the consumer surplus that accrues to Google’s users. The hard question to answer is by how much.
Shane Greenstein of Northwestern University and Ryan McDevitt of the University of Rochester calculated the consumer surplus generated by the spread of broadband access (which ought to include the surplus generated by internet services, since that is why consumers pay for broadband). They did so by constructing a demand curve. Say that in 1999 a person pays $20 a month for internet access. By 2006 the spread of broadband has lowered the real price to $17. That subscriber now enjoys consumer surplus of $3 per year, even as the lower price lures more subscribers. The authors reckon that by 2006 broadband was generating $39 billion in revenue and $5 billion-$7 billion in consumer surplus a year. Based on its share of online viewing, Mr Greenstein thinks Wikipedia accounted for up to $50m of that surplus.

Such numbers probably understate things. The authors’ calculations assume internet access meant the same thing in 2006 as it did in 1999. But the advent of new services such as Google and Facebook meant internet access in 2006 was worth much more than in 1999. So the surplus would have been bigger, too.

More important, consumers may not incorporate the value of free internet services when deciding what to pay for internet access. Another approach is simply to ask consumers what they would pay if they had to. In a study commissioned by IAB Europe, a web-advertising industry group, McKinsey, a consultancy, asked 3,360 consumers in six countries what they would pay for 16 internet services that are now largely financed by ads. On average, households would pay €38 ($50) a month each for services they now get free. After subtracting the costs associated with intrusive ads and forgone privacy, McKinsey reckoned free ad-supported internet services generated €32 billion of consumer surplus in America and €69 billion in Europe. E-mail accounted for 16% of the total surplus across America and Europe, search 15% and social networks 11%.

Another way to infer consumer surplus is from the time saved using the internet. In a paper partly funded by Google, Yan Chen, Grace YoungJoo Jeon and Yong-Mi Kim, all of the University of Michigan, asked a team of researchers to answer questions culled from web searches. The questions included teasers like: “In making cookies, does the use of butter or margarine affect the size of the cookie?” On average, it took participants seven minutes to answer the questions using a search engine, and 22 minutes using the University of Michigan’s library. Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, then calculated that those savings worked out to 3.75 minutes per day for the typical user. Assigning that time a value of $22 per hour (the average wage in America), he reckons search generates $500 of consumer surplus per user annually, or $65 billion-$150 billion nationally.

Twitter: the defence

Yet another technique is to assign a value to the leisure time spent on the web. Erik Brynjolfsson and Joo Hee Oh of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology note that between 2002 and 2011, the amount of leisure time Americans spent on the internet rose from 3 to 5.8 hours per week. The authors conclude that in so far as consumers must have valued their time on the internet more than the alternatives, this increase must reflect a growing consumer surplus from the internet, which they value at $564 billion in 2011, or $2,600 per user. Had this growth in surplus been included in GDP, it would have raised economic growth since 2002 by 0.39 percentage points on average.

These are impressive figures, but they also merit scepticism. Would consumers really pay $2,600 for the internet? Shouldn’t other free leisure activities, such as watching television or—heaven forbid—playing with your children, have just as much value? And in other ways the internet subtracts value: the productivity destroyed by incessant checking of Twitter, the human interactions replaced by e-mail. Ms Mollica says people in hospital waiting rooms used to develop a camaraderie rooted in their shared experiences. “But now everyone stares into their phone because they’re texting or e-mailing.”


Publications by Shane Greenstein and Ryan McDevitt: “The Global Broadband Bonus: Broadband Internet’s Impact on Seven Countries,”  in The Linked World: How ICT Is Transforming Societies, Cultures and Economies, published by the Conference Board, 2011. “The Broadband Bonus: Accounting for Broadband Internet’s Impact on U.S. GDP,” NBER Working Paper #14758, 2009. “Measuring the Broadband Bonus in 20 OECD Countries,”  OECD Digital Economy Papers, No. 197, 2012.

Household Demand for Broadband Internet Service: Final report to the Task Force Federal Communications Commission. Gregory Rosston, Scott J. Savage, Donald M. Waldman, February, 2010.

“Consumers driving the digital uptake: The economic value of online advertising-based services for consumers,” study conducted by McKinsey & Co., commissioned and published by IAB Europe, September 2010.

“A Day without a Search Engine: An Experimental Study of Online and Offline Searches,” Yan Chen, Grace YoungJoo Jeon, Yong-Mi Kim, 2012.

“Valuing Consumer Goods by the Time Spent Using Them: An Application to the Internet,” Austan Goolsbee and Peter Klenow, American Economic Review (Papers and Proceedings), May 2006.

“The Attention Economy: Measuring the Value of Free Goods on the Internet,” Erik Brynjolfsson, and JooHee Oh, July, 2012 (draft).

“Economic Value of Google,” Presentation by Hal Varian, Chief Economist, Google

The original article is linked here.


Written by gregip

March 7, 2013 at 1:52 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: