The Gatekeepers

Is Your Digital Assistant Devious ? By Maurice E. Stucke & Ariel Ezrachi

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Category: The Gatekeepers Published: Friday, 08 September 2017 19:26
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On The Social Science Research Network Electronic library Who wouldn’t want a personal butler? Technological developments have moved us closer to that dream. The rise of digital personal assistants has already changed the way we shop, interact and surf the web. Technological developments and artificial intelligence are likely to further accelerate this trend. Indeed, all of the leading online platforms are currently investing in this technology.   […]





Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Facebook’s M, and Google Assistant can quickly provide us with information, if we so desire, and anticipate and fulfil certain needs and requests. Yet, could they also reduce our welfare? Could they limit competition and transfer our wealth to the providers? And if so, can competition law safeguard our welfare while enabling these technological developments?

The next generation of digital butlers will likely occupy a key gateway between the user and the World Wide Web. With this unique position of power, and with our trust and consent, it could act as a gate-keeper in a two-sided market. In such a market, its allegiance will likely lie with its creator or provider, not the user. Network effects, big data and big analytics will likely undermine attempts to curtail its power, and will likely allow it to operate below the regulatory and antitrust radar screens. As a result, rather than advance our overall welfare, these digital assistants – if left to their own devices - can undermine it.


Who wouldn’t want a personal butler? Technological developments have moved us closer to that dream. Intelligent, voice-activated digital helpers already provide a wide range of services and are likely to increase in appeal and sophistication. Virtual or digital personal assistants are (or can be) installed on our smart phones and smart watches, or are placed, like Amazon’s Echo, in our homes. With ever increased sophistication, these computer bots promise to transform the way we access information and communicate, shop, are entertained, control our smart household appliances, and raise our children.

Indeed, as we explore more fully in Virtual Competition, 1 digital assistants already seek to interact with us in a human-like way, providing relevant information and suggesting restaurants, news stories, hotels, and shopping sites.

Many of us already benefit from basic digital assistants. Apple iPhones users may have Siri call their mom on speaker. Siri can ‘predict’ what app they might want to use, which music they would like to listen to. Amazon’s voice recognition personal assistant, Echo, can shop for you (knowing everything you previously bought through Amazon); plan your mornings, including upcoming meetings, traffic, weather, etc.; entertain you with music; suggest movies, shows, or audiobooks; and control your house’s smart appliances.2 Our navigation apps already anticipate where we are heading throughout the day and provide traffic updates and time estimates. Other application encourage use by ranking you in comparison to others and updating you during the day. Even your favourite coffee outlet may send you a notification and prepare your loyalty card on your device whenever you’re near an outlet.

In 2016, Google showed a video of a suburban family undergoing its morning wakeup routine: “The dad made French press coffee while telling Google to turn on the lights and start playing music in his kids’ rooms. The mom asked if ‘my package’ had shipped. It did, Google said. The daughter asked for help with her Spanish homework.”3 As the artificial intelligence and communication interface advance, digital assistants will offer an unparalleled personalized experience. These digital assistants – or ‘digital butlers’ – can provide us not just with information, but can anticipate and fulfill our needs and requests. They can do so, based on our connections, data profile, behavior, and so forth. As technological developments enhance the available features, our time will be too important to worry over life’s little details. As the digital butler seamlessly provides more of what interests us and less of what doesn’t, we will grow to like and trust it. Communicating in our preferred language, they can quickly execute our commands. […]

Read full article on the Social Science Research Network Electronic library

On the law and economics of antitrust for anyone interested in competition policy online:


Ariel Ezrachi is the Slaughter and May Professor of Competition Law at the University of Oxford and the Director of the University of Oxford Centre for Competition Law and Policy. He is the co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Antitrust Enforcement (OUP) and the author, editor and co-editor of numerous books. He routinely advises competition authorities, law firms, and multi-national firms on competition issues, and develops training and capacity building programmes in competition law and policy for the private and public sectors.

Maurice E. Stucke is Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee and co-founder of The Konkurrenz Group.

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