Professor Ariel Ezrachi Delivers Research Behind New Publication at UNCTAD Research Partnership Platform in Geneva

19th October 2016

To what degree does control lie with the “invisible hand”? In markets continually manipulated by bots and algorithms, does competitive pricing exist in reality or is it an illusion? Are current laws able to protect consumers and whose interests are being served? These are amongst some of the pressing questions addressed in the recently published ‘ Virtual Competition: The Promise and Perils of the Algorithm-Driven Economy, which explores the consequent risks of artificial intelligence for competition, democratic values and our economic well-being.

Co-authored by Ariel Ezrachi (Pembroke Fellow in Law and Slaughter and May Professor of Competition Law) with Maurice E. Stucke (Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee), the publication was presented by Prof. Ezrachi at the 7th Meeting of the UNCTAD Research Partnership Platform in Geneva. This organisation brings together researchers and creates a space for collaborative research activities on issues surrounding competition and consumer protection. ‘Virtual Competition’ is a timely publication which prompts a number of important questions around this field in relation to our digitally-assisted lives.

Prof. Ezrachi’s research interests include European competition law, mergers and acquisitions and cross border transactions; recent papers consider passive investments, excessive pricing, private labels and buyer power. ‘Virtual Competition’ addresses the potential threats posed by artificial intelligence to both market competition and consumers, suggesting that competition authorities may need to readdress and re-interpret the legal tools at their disposal. The authors write:

‘On its surface, the online world – with the growth of price comparison websites, dynamic pricing, web-promotions and smart phone apps – seems to deliver in lowering prices, improving quality, widening the selection of goods and services, and hastening innovation,

‘Yet, behind the mirage, operates an increasingly well-oiled machine that can defy the free competitive forces we rely on.’

Prof. Ezrachi addressed the topic in a recent blog post. Although our trusted digital assistants, like Siri and Google Assistant, may be helpful, Prof. Ezrachi questions whether or not we recognise the toll they take on our wellbeing. As we switch from what he calls a ‘mobile-dominated world’ to an ‘AI-dominated platform’ (Artificial Intelligence), our lives will be increasingly shaped by our digital butler. The more we begin to rely on such technologies, the less likely we will be aware of the discrimination at play—our search results, ads and products we view online can be orchestrated to our personal taste by our digital butler. In Prof. Ezrachi’s words:

‘The gatekeeper could subtly, but effectively, intellectually capture its users in this unique bubble— where users happily roam, unaware of the outside market for products, services and ideas.’

Click here to see a review of this publication in the Wall Street Journal.

Ariel Ezrachi, Pembroke Fellow in Law and Slaughter and May Professor of Competition Law