Let us suppose we can divide the world into those who trust service companies to treat their customers fairly, and those who assume that service companies will be looking to exploit any customer weakness or lapse of attention.
For example, some loyal customers renew without question, even though the cost creeps up from one year to the next. (This is known as price walking.) While other customers switch service providers frequently to chase the best deal. (This is known as churn. B2C businesses generally regard this as a Bad Thing when their own customers do it, not so bad when they can steal their competitors’ customers.)
Price walking is a particular concern for the insurance business. The UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has recently issued new measures to protect customers from price walking.
Duncan Minty, an insurance industry insider who blogs on Ethics and Insurance, believes that claims optimization (which he calls Settlement Walking) raises similar ethical issues. This is where the insurance company tries to get away with a lower claim settlement, especially with those customers who are most likely to accept and least likely to complain. He cites a Bank of England report on machine learning, which refers among other things to propensity modelling. In other words, adjusting how you treat a customer according to how you calculate they will respond.
My work on data-driven personalization includes ethics as well as practical considerations. However, there is always the potential for asymmetry between service providers and consumers. And as Tim Harford points out, this kind of exploitation long predates the emergence of algorithms and machine learning.
In the few days since I posted this, I’ve seen a couple of news items about autorenewals. There seems to be a trend of increasing vigilance by various regulators in different countries to protect consumers.
Firstly, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has unveiled compliance principles to curb locally some of the sharper auto-renewal practices of antivirus software firms. (via The Register).
Secondly, new banking rules in India for repeating payments. Among other things, this creates challenges for free trials and introductory offers. (via Tech Crunch)
Machine Learning in UK financial services (Bank of England / FCA, October 2019)
Tim Harford, Exploitative algorithms are using tricks as old as haggling at the bazaar (2 November 2018)
Joi Ito, Supposedly ‘Fair’ Algorithms Can Perpetuate Discrimination (Wired Magazine, 5 February 2019)
Duncan Minty, Is settlement walking now part of UK insurance? (18 March 2021), Why personalisation will erode the competitiveness of premiums (7 September 2021)
Manish Singh, Tech giants brace for impact in India as new payments rule goes into effect (TechCrunch, 1 October 2021)
Richard Speed, UK competition watchdog unveils principles to make a kinder antivirus business (The Register, 19 October 2021)