Obtaining Reliable Feedback for Sanctioning Reputation Mechanisms

by   B. Faltings, et al.

Reputation mechanisms offer an effective alternative to verification authorities for building trust in electronic markets with moral hazard. Future clients guide their business decisions by considering the feedback from past transactions; if truthfully exposed, cheating behavior is sanctioned and thus becomes irrational. It therefore becomes important to ensure that rational clients have the right incentives to report honestly. As an alternative to side-payment schemes that explicitly reward truthful reports, we show that honesty can emerge as a rational behavior when clients have a repeated presence in the market. To this end we describe a mechanism that supports an equilibrium where truthful feedback is obtained. Then we characterize the set of pareto-optimal equilibria of the mechanism, and derive an upper bound on the percentage of false reports that can be recorded by the mechanism. An important role in the existence of this bound is played by the fact that rational clients can establish a reputation for reporting honestly.


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1 Introduction

The availability of ubiquitous communication through the Internet is driving the migration of business transactions from direct contact between people to electronically mediated interactions. People interact electronically either through human-computer interfaces or through programs representing humans, so-called agents. In either case, no physical interactions among entities occur, and the systems are much more susceptible to fraud and deception.

Traditional methods to avoid cheating involve cryptographic schemes and trusted third parties (TTP’s) that overlook every transaction. Such systems are very costly, introduce potential bottlenecks, and may be difficult to deploy due to the complexity and heterogeneity of the environment: e.g., agents in different geographical locations may be subject to different legislation, or different interaction protocols.

Reputation mechanisms offer a novel and effective way of ensuring the necessary level of trust which is essential to the functioning of any market. They are based on the observation that agent strategies change when we consider that interactions are repeated: the other party remembers past cheating, and changes its terms of business accordingly in the future. Therefore, the expected gains due to future transactions in which the agent has a higher reputation can offset the loss incurred by not cheating in the present. This effect can be amplified considerably when such reputation information is shared among a large population, and thus multiplies the expected future gains made accessible by honest behavior.

Existing reputation mechanisms enjoy huge success. Systems such as eBay111www.ebay.com or Amazon222www.amazon.com implement reputation mechanisms which are partly credited for the businesses’ success. Studies show that human users seriously take into account the reputation of the seller when placing bids in online auctions [Houser  WoodersHouser  Wooders2006], and that despite the incentive to free ride, feedback is provided in more than half of the transactions on eBay [Resnick  ZeckhauserResnick  Zeckhauser2002].

One important challenge associated with designing reputation mechanisms is to ensure that truthful feedback is obtained about the actual interactions, a property called incentive-compatibility. Rational users can regard the private information they have observed as a valuable asset, not to be freely shared. Worse even, agents can have external incentives to misreport and thus manipulate the reputation information available to other agents [HarmonHarmon2004]. Without proper measures, the reputation mechanism will obtain unreliable information, biased by the strategic interests of the reporters.

Honest reporting incentives should be addressed differently depending on the predominant role of the reputation mechanisms. The signaling role is useful in environments where the service offered by different providers may have different quality, but all clients interacting with the same provider are treated equally (markets with adverse selection

). This is the case, for example, in a market of web-services. Different providers possess different hardware resources and employ different algorithms; this makes certain web-services better than others. Nevertheless, all requests issued to the same web-service are treated by the same program. Some clients might experience worse service than others, but these differences are random, and not determined by the provider. The feedback from previous clients statistically estimates the quality delivered by a provider in the future, and hence signals to future clients which provider should be selected.

The sanctioning role, on the other hand, is present in settings where service requests issued by clients must be individually addressed by the provider. Think of a barber, who must skillfully shave every client that walks in his shop. The problem here is that providers must exert care (and costly effort) for satisfying every service request. Good quality can result only when enough effort was exerted, but the provider is better off by exerting less effort: e.g., clients will anyway pay for the shave, so the barber is better off by doing a sloppy job as fast as possible in order to have time for more customers. This moral hazard situation can be eliminated by a reputation mechanism that punishes providers for not exerting effort. Low effort results in negative feedback that decreases the reputation, and hence the future business opportunities of the provider. The future loss due to a bad reputation offsets the momentary gain obtained by cheating, and makes cooperative behavior profitable.

There are well known solutions for providing honest reporting incentives for signaling reputation mechanisms. Since all clients interacting with a service receive the same quality (in a statistical sense), a client’s private observation influences her belief regarding the experience of other clients. In the web-services market mentioned before, the fact that one client had a bad experience with a certain web-service makes her more likely to believe that other clients will also encounter problems with that same web-service. This correlation between the client’s private belief and the feedback reported by other clients can be used to design feedback payments that make honesty a Nash equilibrium. When submitting feedback, clients get paid an amount that depends both on the the value they reported and on the reports submitted by other clients. As long as others report truthfully, the expected payment of every client is maximized by the honest report – thus the equilibrium. MRZ:2005 and JF_EC:2006 show that incentive-compatible payments can be designed to offset both reporting costs and lying incentives.

For sanctioning reputation mechanisms the same payment schemes are not guaranteed to be incentive-compatible. Different clients may experience different service quality because the provider decided to exert different effort levels. The private beliefs of the reporter may no longer be correlated to the feedback of other clients, and therefore, the statistical properties exploited by MRZ:2005 are no longer present.

As an alternative, we propose different incentives to motivate honest reporting based on the repeated presence of the client in the market. Game theoretic results (i.e., the folk theorems) show that repeated interactions support new equilibria where present deviations are made unattractive by future penalties. Even without a reputation mechanism, a client can guide her future play depending on the experience of previous interactions. As a first result of this paper, we describe a mechanism that indeed supports a cooperative equilibrium where providers exert effort all the time. The reputation mechanism correctly records when the client received low quality.

There are certainly some applications where clients repeatedly interact with the same seller with a potential moral hazard problem. The barber shop mentioned above is one example, as most people prefer going to the same barber (or hairdresser). Another example is a market of delivery services. Every package must be scheduled for timely delivery, and this involves a cost for the provider. Some of this cost may be saved by occasionally dropping a package, hence the moral hazard. Moreover, business clients typically rely on the same carrier to dispatch their documents or merchandise. As their own business depends on the quality and timeliness of the delivery, they do have the incentive to form a lasting relationship and get good service. Yet another example is that of a business person who repeatedly travels to an offshore client. The business person has a direct interest to repeatedly obtain good service from the hotel which is closest to the client’s offices.

We assume that the quality observed by the clients is also influenced by environmental factors outside the control of, however observable by, the provider. Despite the barber’s best effort, a sudden movement of the client can always generate an accidental cut that will make the client unhappy. Likewise, the delivery company may occasionally lose or damage some packages due to transportation accidents. Nevertheless, the delivery company (like the barber) eventually learns with certainty about any delays, damages or losses that entitle clients to complain about unsatisfactory service.

The mechanism we propose is quite simple. Before asking feedback from the client, the mechanism gives the provider the opportunity to acknowledge failure, and reimburse the client. Only when the provider claims good service does the reputation mechanism record the feedback of the client. Contradictory reports (the provider claims good service, but the client submits negative feedback) may only appear when one of the parties is lying, and therefore, both the client and the provider are sanctioned: the provider suffers a loss as a consequence of the negative report, while the client is given a small fine.

One equilibrium of the mechanism is when providers always do their best to deliver the promised quality, and truthfully acknowledge the failures caused by the environmental factors. Their “honest” behavior is motivated by the threat that any mistake will drive the unsatisfied client away from the market. When future transactions generate sufficient revenue, the provider does not afford to risk losing a client, hence the equilibrium.

Unfortunately, this socially desired equilibrium is not unique. Clients can occasionally accept bad service and keep returning to the same provider because they don’t have better alternatives. Moreover, since complaining for bad service is sanctioned by the reputation mechanism, clients might be reluctant to report negative feedback. Penalties for negative reports and the clients’ lack of choice drives the provider to occasionally cheat in order to increase his revenue.

As a second result, we characterize the set of pareto-optimal equilibria of our mechanism and prove that the amount of unreported cheating that can occur is limited by two factors. The first factor limits the amount of cheating in general, and is given by the quality of the alternatives available to the clients. Better alternatives increase the expectations of the clients, therefore the provider must cheat less in order to keep his customers.

The second factor limits the amount of unreported cheating, and represents the cost incurred by clients to establish a reputation for reporting the truth. By stubbornly exposing bad service when it happens, despite the fine imposed by the reputation mechanism, the client signals to the provider that she is committed to always report the truth. Such signals will eventually change the strategy of the provider to full cooperation, who will avoid the punishment for negative feedback. Having a reputation for reporting truthfully is of course, valuable to the client; therefore, a rational client accepts to lie (and give up the reputation) only when the cost of building a reputation for reporting honestly is greater than the occasional loss created by tolerated cheating. This cost is given by the ease with which the provider switches to cooperative play, and by the magnitude of the fine imposed for negative feedback.

Concretely, this paper proceeds as follows. In Section 2 we describe related work, followed by a more detailed description of our setting in Section 3. Section 4 presents a game theoretic model of our mechanism and an analysis of reporting incentives and equilibria. Here we establish the existence of the cooperative equilibrium, and derive un upper bound on the amount of cheating that can occur in any pareto-optimal equilibrium.

In Section 5 we establish the cost of building a reputation for reporting honestly, and hence compute an upper bound on the percentage of false reports recorded by the reputation mechanism in any equilibrium.

We continue in Section 6 by analyzing the impact of malicious buyers that explicitly try to destroy the reputation of the provider. We give some initial approximations on the worst case damage such buyers can cause to providers. Further discussions, open issues and directions for future work are discussed in Section 7. Finally, Section 8 concludes our work.

2 Related Work

The notion of reputation

is often used in Game Theory to signal the commitment of a player towards a fixed strategy. This is what we mean by saying that

clients establish a reputation for reporting the truth: they commit to always report the truth. Building a reputation usually requires some incomplete information repeated game, and can significantly impact the set of equilibrium points of the game. This is commonly referred to as the reputation effect, first characterized by the seminal papers of KMRW:1982, Kreps/Wilson:1982 and Milgrom/Roberts:1982.

The reputation effect can be extended to all games where a player () could benefit from committing to a certain strategy that is not credible in a complete information game: e.g., a monopolist seller would like to commit to fight all potential entrants in a chain-store game [SeltenSelten1978]

, however, this commitment is not credible due to the cost of fighting. In an incomplete information game where the commitment type has positive probability,

’s opponent () can at some point become convinced that is playing as if she were the commitment type. At that point, will play a best response against , which gives the desired payoff. Establishing a reputation for the commitment strategy requires time and cost. When the higher future payoffs offset the cost of building reputation, the reputation effect prescribes minimum payoffs any equilibrium strategy should give to player (otherwise, can profitably deviate by playing as if she were a commitment type).

Fudenberg/Levine:1989 study the class of all repeated games in which a long-run player faces a sequence of single-shot opponents who can observe all previous games. If the long-run player is sufficiently patient and the single-shot players have a positive prior belief that the long-run player might be a commitment type, the authors derive a lower bound on the payoff received by the long-run player in any Nash equilibrium of the repeated game. This result holds for both finitely and infinitely repeated games, and is robust against further perturbations of the information structure (i.e., it is independent of what other types have positive probability).

Schmidt:1993 provides a generalization of the above result for the two long-run player case in a special class of games called of “conflicting interests”, when one of the players is sufficiently more patient than the opponent. A game is of conflicting interests when the commitment strategy of one player () holds the opponent () to his minimax payoff. The author derives an upper limit on the number of rounds will not play a best response to ’s commitment type, which in turn generates a lower bound on ’s equilibrium payoff. For a detailed treatment of the reputation effect, the reader is directed to the work of Mailath/Samuelson:2006.

In computer science and information systems research, reputation information defines some aggregate of feedback reports about past transactions. This is the semantics we are using when referring to the reputation of the provider. Reputation information encompasses a unitary appreciation of the personal attributes of the provider, and influences the trusting decisions of clients. Depending on the environment, reputation has two main roles: to signal the capabilities of the provider, and to sanction cheating behavior [KuwabaraKuwabara2003].

Signaling reputation mechanisms allow clients to learn which providers are the most capable of providing good service. Such systems have been widely used in computational trust mechanisms. Birk:2001 and Bis:2000 describe systems where agents use their direct past experience to recognize trustworthy partners. The global efficiency of the market is clearly increased, however, the time needed to build the reputation information prohibits the use of this kind of mechanisms in a large scale online market.

A number of signaling reputation mechanisms also take into consideration indirect reputation information, i.e., information reported by peers. Sch:2000 and Yu:2002,Yu/Singh:2003 use social networks in order to obtain the reputation of an unknown agent. Agents ask acquaintances several hops away about the trustworthiness of an unknown agent. Recommendations are afterwards aggregated into a single measure of the agent’s reputation. This class of mechanisms, however intuitive, does not provide any rational participation incentives for the agents. Moreover, there is little protection against untruthful reporting, and no guarantee that the mechanism cannot be manipulated by a malicious provider in order to obtain higher payoffs.

Truthful reporting incentives for signaling reputation mechanisms are described by MRZ:2005. Honest reports are explicitly rewarded by payments that take into account the value of the submitted report, and the value of a report submitted by another client (called the reference reporter). The payment schemes are designed based on proper scoring rules, mathematical functions that make possible the revelation of private beliefs [CookeCooke1991]. The essence behind honest reporting incentives is the observation that the private information a client obtains from interacting with a provider changes her belief regarding the reports of other clients. This change in beliefs can be exploited to make honesty an ex-ante Nash equilibrium strategy.

JF_EC:2006 extend the above result by taking a computational approach to designing incentive compatible payment schemes. Instead of using closed form scoring rules, they compute the payments using an optimization problem that minimizes the total budget required to reward the reporters. By also using several reference reports and filtering mechanisms, they render the payment mechanisms cheaper and more practical.

Dellarocas:2005 presents a comprehensive investigation of binary sanctioning reputation mechanisms. As in our setting, providers are equally capable of providing high quality, however, doing so requires costly effort. The role of the reputation mechanism is to encourage cooperative behavior by punishing cheating: negative feedback reduces future revenues either by excluding the provider from the market, or by decreasing the price the provider can charge in future transactions. Dellarocas shows that simple information structures and decision rules can lead to efficient equilibria, given that clients report honestly.

Our paper builds upon such mechanisms by addressing reporting incentives. We will abstract away the details of the underlying reputation mechanism through an explicit penalty associated with a negative feedback. Given that such high enough penalties exist, any reputation mechanism (i.e., feedback aggregation and trusting decision rules) can be plugged in our scheme.

In the same group of work that addresses reporting incentives, we mention the work of Braynov/Sandholm:2002, Dellarocas:2002_LNCS2531 and Papaioannou/Stamoulis:2005. Braynov/Sandholm:2002 consider exchanges of goods for money and prove that a market in which agents are trusted to the degree they deserve to be trusted is equally efficient as a market with complete trustworthiness. By scaling the amount of the traded product, the authors prove that it is possible to make it rational for sellers to truthfully declare their trustworthiness. Truthful declaration of one’s trustworthiness eliminates the need of reputation mechanisms and significantly reduces the cost of trust management. However, the assumptions made about the trading environment (i.e. the form of the cost function and the selling price which is supposed to be smaller than the marginal cost) are not common in most electronic markets.

For e-Bay-like auctions, the Goodwill Hunting mechanism [DellarocasDellarocas2002] provides a way to make sellers indifferent between lying or truthfully declaring the quality of the good offered for sale. Momentary gains or losses obtained from misrepresenting the good’s quality are later compensated by the mechanism which has the power to modify the announcement of the seller.

Papaioannou/Stamoulis:2005 describe an incentive-compatible reputation mechanism that is particularly suited for peer-to-peer applications. Their mechanism is similar to ours, in the sense that both the provider and the client are punished for submitting conflicting reports. The authors experimentally show that a class of common lying strategies are successfully deterred by their scheme. Unlike their results, our paper considers all possible equilibrium strategies and sets bounds on the amount of untruthful information recorded by the reputation mechanism.

3 The Setting

We assume an online market, where rational clients (she) repeatedly request the same service from one provider (he). Every client repeatedly interacts with the service provider, however, successive requests from the same client are always interleaved with enough requests generated by other clients. Transactions are assumed sequential, the provider does not have capacity constraints, and accepts all requests.

The price of service is monetary units, and the service can have either high () or low () quality. Only high quality is valuable to the clients, and has utility . Low quality has utility 0, and can be precisely distinguished from high quality. Before each round, the client can decide to request the service from the provider, or quit the market and resort to an outside provider that is completely trustworthy. The outside provider always delivers high quality service, but for a higher price .

If the client decides to interact with the online provider, she issues a request to the provider, and pays for the service. The provider can now decide to exert low () or high () effort when treating the request. Low effort has a normalized cost of 0, but generates only low quality. High effort is expensive (normalized cost equals ) and generates high quality with probability . is fixed, and depends on the environmental factors outside the control of the provider. , so that it is individually rational for providers to exert effort.

After exerting effort, the provider can observe the quality of the resulting service. He can then decide to deliver the service as it is, or to acknowledge failure and roll back the transaction by fully reimbursing333In reality, the provider might also pay a penalty for rolling back the transaction. As long as this penalty is small, the qualitative results we present in this paper remain valid. the client. We assume perfect delivery channels, such that the client perceives exactly the same quality as the provider. After delivery, the client inspects the quality of service, and can accuse low quality by submitting a negative report to the reputation mechanism.

The reputation mechanism (RM) is unique in the market, and trusted by all participants. It can oversee monetary transactions (i.e., payments made between clients and the provider) and can impose fines on all parties. However, the RM does not observe the effort level exerted by the provider, nor does it know the quality of the delivered service.

The RM asks feedback from the client only if she chose to transact with the provider in the current round (i.e., paid the price of service to the provider) and the provider delivered the service (i.e., provider did not reimburse the client). When the client submits negative feedback, the RM punishes both the client and the provider: the client must pay a fine , and the provider accumulates a negative reputation report.

3.1 Examples

Although simplistic, this model retains the main characteristics of several interesting applications. A delivery service for perishable goods (goods that lose value past a certain deadline) is one of them. Pizza, for example, must be delivered within 30 minutes, otherwise it gets cold and loses its taste. Hungry clients can order at home, or drive to a more expensive local restaurant, where they’re sure to get a hot pizza. The price of a home delivered pizza is , while at the restaurant, the same pizza would cost . In both cases, the utility of a warm meal is .

The pizza delivery provider must exert costly effort to deliver orders within the deadline. A courier must be dispatched immediately (high effort), for an estimated cost of . While such action usually results in good service (the probability of a timely delivery is ), traffic conditions and unexpected accidents (e.g., the address is not easily found) may still delay some deliveries past the deadline.

Once at the destination, the delivery person, as well as the client, know if the delivery was late or not. As it is common practice, the provider can acknowledge being late, and reimburse the client. Clients may provide feedback to a reputation mechanism, but their feedback counts only if they were not reimbursed. The client’s fine for submitting a negative report can be set for example at . The future loss to the provider caused by the negative report (and quantified through ) depends on the reputation mechanism.

A simplified market of car garagists or plumbers could fit the same model. The provider is commissioned to repair a car (respectively the plumbing) and the quality of the work depends on the exerted effort. High effort is more costly but ensures a lasting result with high probability. Low effort is cheap, but the resulting fix is only temporary. In both cases, however, the warranty convention may specify the right of the client to ask for a reimbursement if problems reoccur within the warranty period. Reputation feedback may be submitted at the end of the warranty period, and is accepted only if reimbursements didn’t occur.

An interesting emerging application comes with a new generation of web services that can optimally decide how to treat every request. For some service types, a high quality response requires the exclusive use of costly resources. For example, computation jobs require CPU time, storage requests need disk space, information requests need queries to databases. Sufficient resources, is a prerequisite, but not a guarantee for good service. Software and hardware failures may occur, however, these failures are properly signaled to the provider. Once monetary incentives become sufficiently important in such markets, intelligent providers will identify the moral hazard problem, and may act strategically as identified in our model.

4 Behavior and Reporting Incentives

From game theoretic point of view, one interaction between the client and the provider can be modeled by the extensive-form game () with imperfect public information, shown in Figure 1. The client moves first and decides (at node 1) whether to play and interact with the provider, or to play and resort to the trusted outside option.

Once the client plays , the provider can chose at node 2 whether to exert high or low effort (i.e., plays or respectively). When the provider plays the generated quality is low. When the provider plays , nature chooses between high quality () with probability , and low quality () with probability . The constant is assumed common knowledge in the market. Having seen the resulting quality, the provider delivers (i.e., plays ) the service, or acknowledges low quality and rolls back the transaction (i.e., plays ) by fully reimbursing the client. If the service is delivered, the client can report positive () or negative () feedback.

Figure 1: The game representing one interaction. Empty circles represent decision nodes, edge labels represent actions, full circles represent terminal nodes and the dotted oval represents an information set. Payoffs are represented in rectangles, the top row describes the payoff of the client, the second row describes the payoff of the provider.

A pure strategy is a deterministic mapping describing an action for each of the player’s information sets. The client has three information sets in the game . The first information set is singleton and contains the node 1 at the beginning of game when the client must decide between playing or . The second information set contains the nodes 7 and 8 (the dotted oval in Figure 1) where the client must decide between reporting or , given that she has received low quality, . The third information set is singleton and contains the node 9 where the client must decide between reporting or , given that she received high quality, . The strategy , for example, is the honest reporting strategy, specifying that the client enters the game, reports when she receives low quality, and reports when she receives high quality. The set of pure strategies of the client is:

Similarly, the set of pure strategies of the provider is:

where , for example, is the socially desired strategy: the provider exerts effort at node 2, acknowledges low quality at node 5, and delivers high quality at node 6. A pure strategy profile is a pair where and . If

denotes the set of probability distributions over the elements of

, and are mixed strategies for the client, respectively the provider, and is a mixed strategy profile.

The payoffs to the players depend on the chosen strategy profile, and on the move of nature. Let denote the pair of expected payoffs received by the client, respectively by the provider when playing strategy profile . The function is characterized in Table 1 and also describs the normal form transformation of . Besides the corresponding payments made between the client and the provider, Table 1 also reflects the influence of the reputation mechanism, as further explained in Section 4.1. The four strategies of the client that involve playing at node 1 generate the same outcomes, and therefore, have been collapsed for simplicity into a single row of Table 1.



Table 1: Normal transformation of the extensive form game,

4.1 The Reputation Mechanism

For every interaction, the reputation mechanism records one of the three different signals it may receive: positive feedback when the client reports , negative feedback when the client reports , and neutral feedback when the provider rolls back the transaction and reimburses the client. In Figure 1 (and Table 1) positive and neutral feedback do not influence the payoff of the provider, while negative feedback imposes a punishment equivalent to .

Two considerations made us choose this representation. First, we associate neutral and positive feedback with the same reward (0 in this case) because intuitively, the acknowledgement of failure may also be regarded as “honest” behavior on behalf of the provider. Failures occur despite best effort, and by acknowledging them, the provider shouldn’t suffer.

However, neutral feedback may also result because the provider did not exert effort. The lack of punishment for these instances contradicts the goal of the reputation mechanism to encourage exertion of effort. Fortunately, the action can be the result of rational behavior only in two circumstances, both excusable: one, when the provider defends himself against a malicious client that is expected to falsely report negative feedback (details in Section 6), and two, when the environmental noise is too big ( is too small) to justify exertion of effort. Neutral feedback can be used to estimate the parameter , or to detect coalitions of malicious clients, and indirectly, may influence the revenue of the provider. However, for the simplified model presented above, positive and neutral feedback are considered the same in terms of generated payoffs.

The second argument relates to the role of the RM to constrain the revenue of the provider depending on the feedback of the client. There are several ways of doing that. Dellarocas:2005 describes two principles, and two mechanisms that punish the provider when the clients submit negative reports. The first, works by exclusion. After each negative report the reputation mechanism bans the provider from the market with probability . This probability can be tuned such that the provider has the incentive to cooperate almost all the time, and the market stays efficient. The second works by changing the conditions of future trade. Every negative report triggers the decrease of the price the next clients will pay for the service. For lower values of the price decrease is higher, nonetheless, can take any value in an efficient market.

Both mechanisms work because the future losses offset the momentary gain the provider would have had by intentionally cheating on the client. Note that these penalties are given endogenously by lost future opportunities, and require some minimum premiums for trusted providers. When margins are not high enough, providers do not care enough about future transactions, and will use the present opportunity of cheating.

Another option is to use exogenous penalties for cheating. For example, the provider may be required to buy a licence for operating in the market444The reputation mechanism can buy and sell market licences. The licence is partially destroyed by every negative feedback. Totaly destroyed licences must be restored through a new payment, and remaining parts can be sold if the provider quits the market. The price of the licence and the amount that is destroyed by a negative feedback can be scaled such that rational providers have the incentive to cooperate. Unlike the previous solutions, this mechanism does not require minimum transaction margins as punishments for negative feedback are directly subtracted from the upfront deposit.

One way or another, all reputation mechanisms foster cooperation because the provider associates value to client feedback. Let and be the value of a positive, respectively a negative report. In the game in Figure 1, is normalized to 0, and is . By using this notation, we abstract away the details of the reputation mechanism, and retain only the essential punishment associated with negative feedback. Any reputation mechanism can be plugged in our scheme, as long as the particular constraints (e.g., minimum margins for transactions) are satisfied.

One last aspect to be considered is the influence of the reputation mechanism on the future transactions of the client. If negative reports attract lower prices, rational long-run clients might be tempted to falsely report in order to purchase cheaper services in the future. Fortunately, some of the mechanisms designed for single-run clients, do not influence the reporting strategy of long-run clients. The reputation mechanism that only keeps the last reports [DellarocasDellarocas2005] is one of them. A false negative report only influences the next transactions of the provider; given that more than other requests are interleaved between any two successive requests of the same client, a dishonest reporter cannot decrease the price for her future transactions.

The licence-based mechanism we have described above is another example. The price of service remains unchanged, therefore reporting incentives are unaffected. On the other hand, when negative feedback is punished by exclusion, clients may be more reluctant to report negatively, since they also lose a trading partner.

4.2 Analysis of Equilibria

The one-time game presented in Figure 1 has only one subgame equilibrium where the client opts . When asked to report feedback, the client always prefers to report (reporting attracts the penalty ). Knowing this, the best strategy for the provider is to exert low effort and deliver the service. Knowing the provider will play , it is strictly better for the client to play .

The repeated game between the same client and provider may, however, have other equilibria. Before analyzing the repeated game, let us note that every interaction between a provider and a particular client can be strategically isolated and considered independently. As the provider accepts all clients and views them identically, he will maximize his expected revenue in each of the isolated repeated games.

From now on, we will only consider the repeated interaction between the provider and one client. This can be modeled by a -fold repetition of the stage game , denoted , where is finite or infinite. In this paper we will deal with the infinite horizon case, however, the results obtained can also be applied with minor modifications to finitely repeated games where is large enough.

If is the per period discount factor reflecting the probability that the market ceases to exist after each round, (or the present value of future revenues), let us denote by the expected discount factor in the game . If our client interacts with the provider on the average every rounds, .

The life-time expected payoff of the players is computed as:

where is the client, respectively the provider, is the expected payoff obtained by player in the interaction, and is the discount applied to compute the present day value of .

We will consider normalized life-time expected payoffs, so that payoffs in and can be expressed using the same measure:


We define the average continuation payoff for player from period onward (and including period ) as:


The set of outcomes publicly perceived by both players after each round is:


  • is observed when the client opts ,

  • is observed when the provider acknowledges low quality and rolls back the transaction,

  • is observed when the provider delivers quality and the client reports .

We denote by a specific public history of the repeated game out of the set of all possible histories up to and including period . In the repeated game, a public strategy of player is a sequence of maps , where prescribes the (mixed) strategy to be played in round , after the public history . A perfect public equilibrium (PPE) is a profile of public strategies that, beginning at any time and given any public history , form a Nash equilibrium from that point on [Fudenberg, Levine,  MaskinFudenberg et al.1994]. is the continuation payoff to player given by the strategy profile .

is a game with product structure

since any public outcome can be expressed as a vector of two components

such that the distribution of depends only on the actions of player , the client, respectively the provider. For such games, Fudenberg/Levine/Maskin:1994 establish a Folk Theorem proving that any feasible, individually rational payoff profile is achievable as a PPE of when the discount factor is close enough to 1. The set of feasible, individually rational payoff profiles is characterized by:

  • the minimax payoff to the client, obtained by the option : ;

  • the minimax payoff to the provider, obtained when the provider plays : ;

  • the pareto optimal frontier (graphically presented in Figure 2) delimited by the payoffs given by (linear combination of) the strategy profiles , , and .

and contains more than one point (i.e., the payoff when the client plays ) when and . Both conditions impose restrictions on the minimum margin generated by a transaction such that the interaction is profitable. The PPE payoff profile that gives the provider the maximum payoff is where:

and is defined above.

Figure 2: The pareto-optimal frontier of the set of feasible, individually rational payoff profiles of .

While completely characterizing the set of PPE payoffs for discount factors strictly smaller than 1 is outside the scope of this paper, let us note the following results:

First, if the discount factor is high enough (but strictly less than 1) with respect to the profit margin obtained by the provider from one interaction, there is at least one PPE such that the reputation mechanism records only honest reports. Moreover, this equilibrium is pareto-optimal.

Proposition 1

When , the strategy profile:

  • the provider always exerts high effort, and delivers only high quality; if the client deviates from the equilibrium , the provider switches to for the rest of the rounds;

  • the client always reports when asked to submit feedback; if the provider deviates, (i.e., she receives low quality), the client switches to for the rest of the rounds.

is a pareto-optimal PPE.

Proof. It is not profitable for the client to deviate from the equilibrium path. Reporting attracts the penalty in the present round, and the termination of the interaction with the provider (the provider stops exerting effort from that round onwards).

The provider, on the other hand, can momentarily gain by deviating to or . A deviation to gives an expected momentary gain of and an expected continuation loss of . A deviation to brings an expected momentary gain equal to and an expected continuation loss of . For the discount factor satisfying our hypothesis, both deviations are not profitable. The discount factor is low enough with respect to profit margins, such that the future revenues given by the equilibrium strategy offset the momentary gains obtained by deviating.

The equilibrium payoff profile is , which is pareto-optimal and socially efficient.

Second, we can prove that the client never reports negative feedback in any pareto-optimal PPE, regardless the value of the discount factor. The restriction to pareto-optimal is justifiable by practical reasons: assuming that the client and the provider can somehow negotiate the equilibrium they are going to play, it makes most sense to choose one of the pareto-optimal equilibria.

Proposition 2

The probability that the client reports negative feedback on the equilibrium path of any pareto-optimal PPE strategy is zero.

Sketch of Proof. The full proof presented in Appendix A follows the following steps. Step 1, all equilibrium payoffs can be expressed by adding the present round payoff to the discounted continuation payoff from the next round onward. Step 2, take the PPE payoff profile , such that there is no other PPE payoff profile with . The client never reports negative feedback in the first round of the equilibrium that gives . Step 3, the equilibrium continuation payoff after the first round also satisfies the conditions set for . Hence, the probability that the client reports negative feedback on the equilibrium path that gives is 0. Pareto-optimal PPE payoff profiles clearly satisfy the definition of , hence the result of the proposition.

The third result we want to mention here, is that there is an upper bound on the percentage of false reports recorded by the reputation mechanism in any of the pareto-optimal equilibria.

Proposition 3

The upper bound on the percentage of false reports recorded by the reputation mechanism in any PPE equilibrium is:


Sketch of Proof. The full proof presented in Appendix B builds directly on the result of Proposition 2. Since clients never report negative feedback along pareto-optimal equilibria, the only false reports recorded by the reputation mechanism appear when the provider delivers low quality, and the client reports positive feedback. However, any PPE profile must give the client at least , otherwise the client is better off by resorting to the outside option. Every round in which the provider deliberatively delivers low quality gives the client a payoff strictly smaller than . An equilibrium payoff greater than is therefore possible only when the percentage of rounds where the provider delivers low quality is bounded. The same bound limits the percentage of false reports recorded by the reputation mechanism.

For a more intuitive understanding of the results presented in this section, let us refer to the pizza delivery example detailed in Section 3.1. The price of a home delivered pizza is , while at the local restaurant the same pizza would cost . The utility of a warm pizza to the client is , the cost of delivery is and the probability that unexpected traffic conditions delay the delivery beyond the 30 minutes deadline (despite the best effort of the provider) is .

The client can secure a minimax payoff of by always going out to the restaurant. However, the socially desired equilibrium happens when the client orders pizza at home, and the pizza service exerts effort to deliver pizza in time: in this case the payoff of the client is , while the payoff of the provider is .

Proposition 1 gives a lower bound on the discount factor of the pizza delivery service such that repeated clients can expect the socially desired equilibrium. This bound is ; assuming that the daily discount factor of the pizza service is , the same client must order pizza at home at least once every 6 weeks. The values of the discount factors can also be interpreted in terms of the minimum number of rounds the client (and the provider) will likely play the game. For example, the discount factor can be viewed as the probability that the client (respectively the provider) will “live” for another interaction in the market. It follows that the average lifetime of the provider is at least interactions (with all clients), while the average lifetime of the client is at least interactions (with the same pizza delivery service). These are clearly realistic numbers.

Proposition 3 gives an upper bound on the percentage of false reports that our mechanism may record in equilibrium from the clients. As , this limit is:

It follows that at least of the reports recorded by our mechanism (in any equilibrium) are correct. The false reports (false positive reports) result from rare cases where the pizza delivery is intentionally delayed to save some cost but clients do not complain. The false report can be justified, for example, by the provider’s threat to refuse future orders from clients that complain. Given that late deliveries are still rare enough, clients are better off with the home delivery than with the restaurant, hence they accept the threat. As other options become available to the clients (e.g., competing delivery services) the bound will decrease.

Please note that the upper bound defined by Proposition 3 only depends on the outside alternative available to the provider, and is not influenced by the punishment introduced by the reputation mechanism. This happens because the revenue of a client is independent of the interactions of other clients, and therefore, on the reputation information as reported by other clients. Equilibrium strategies are exclusively based on the direct experience of the client. In the following section, however, we will refine this bound by considering that clients can build a reputation for reporting honestly. There, the punishment plays an important role.

5 Building a Reputation for Truthful Reporting

An immediate consequence of Propositions 2 and 3 is that the provider can extract all of the surplus created by the transactions by occasionally delivering low quality, and convincing the clients not to report negative feedback (providers can do so by promising sufficiently high continuation payoffs that prevent the client to resort to the outside provider). Assuming that the provider has more “power” in the market, he could influence the choice of the equilibrium strategy to one that gives him the most revenue, and holds the clients close to the minimax payoff given by the outside option.555All pareto-optimal PPE payoff profiles are also renegotiation-proof [Bernheim  RayBernheim  Ray1989, Farrell  MaskinFarrell  Maskin1989]. This follows from the proof of Proposition 3: the continuation payoffs enforcing a pareto-optimal PPE payoff profile are also pareto-optimal. Therefore, clients falsely report positive feedback even under the more restrictive notion of negotiation-proof equilibrium.

However, a client who could commit to report honestly, (i.e., commit to play the strategy ) would benefit from cooperative trade. The provider’s best response against is to play repeatedly, which leads the game to the socially efficient outcome. Unfortunately the commitment to is not credible in the complete information game, for the reasons explained in Section 4.2.

Following the results of KMRW:1982, Fudenberg/Levine:1989 and Schmidt:1993 we know that such honest reporting commitments may become credible in a game with incomplete information. Suppose that the provider has incomplete information in , and believes with non-negative probability that he is facing a committed client that always reports the truth. A rational client can then “fake” the committed client, and “build a reputation” for reporting honestly. When the reputation becomes credible, the provider will play (the best response against ), which is better for the client than the payoff she would obtain if the provider knew she was the “rational” type.

As an effect of reputation building, the set of equilibrium points is reduced to a set where the payoff to the client is higher than the payoff obtained by a client committed to report honestly. As anticipated from Proposition 3, a smaller set of equilibrium points also reduces the bound of false reports recorded by the reputation mechanism. In certain cases, this bound can be reduced to almost zero.

Formally, incomplete information can be modeled by a perturbation of the complete information repeated game such that in period 0 (before the first round of the game is played) the “type” of the client is drawn by nature out of a countable set according to the probability measure . The client’s payoff now additionally depends on her type. We say that in the perturbed game the provider has incomplete information because he is not sure about the true type of the client.

Two types from have particular importance:

  • The “normal” type of the client, denoted by , is the rational client who has the payoffs presented in Figure 1.

  • The “commitment” type of the client, denoted by , always prefers to play the commitment strategy . From a rational perspective, the commitment type client obtains an arbitrarily high supplementary reward for reporting the truth. This external reward makes the strategy the dominant strategy, and therefore, no commitment type client will play anything else than .

In Theorem 1 we give an upper bound on the number of times the provider delivers low quality in , given that he always observes the client reporting honestly.

The intuition behind this result is the following. The provider’s best response to a honest reporter is : always exert high effort, and deliver only when the quality is high. This gives the commitment type client her maximum attainable payoff in , corresponding to the socially efficient outcome. The provider, however, would be better off by playing against the normal type client, against whom he can obtain an expected payoff greater than .

The normal type client may be distinguished from a commitment type client only in the rounds when the provider delivers low quality: the commitment type always reports negative feedback, while the normal type might decide to report positive feedback in order to avoid the penalty . The provider can therefore decide to deliver low quality to the client in order to test her real type. The question is, how many times should the provider test the true type of the client.

Every failed test (i.e., the provider delivers low quality and the client reports negative feedback) generates a loss of to the provider, and slightly enforces the belief that the client reports honestly. Since the provider cannot wait infinitely for future payoffs, there must be a time when the provider will stop testing the type of the provider, and accepts to play the socially efficient strategy, .

The switch to the socially efficient strategy is not triggered by a revelation of the client’s type. The provider believes that the client behaves as if she were a commitment type, not that the client is a commitment type. The client may very well be a normal type who chooses to mimic the commitment type, in the hope that she will obtain better service from the provider. However, further trying to determine the true type of the client is too costly for the provider. Therefore, the provider chooses to play , which is the best response to the commitment strategy .

Theorem 1

If the provider has incomplete information in , and assigns positive probability to the normal and commitment type of the client (, ), there is a finite upper bound, , on the number of times the provider delivers low quality in any equilibrium of . This upper bound is:


Proof. First, we use an important result obtained by Fudenberg/Levine:1989 about statistical inference (Lemma 1): If every previously delivered low quality service was sanctioned by a negative report, the provider must expect with increasing probability that his next low quality delivery will also be sanctioned by negative feedback. Technically, for any , the provider can deliver at most low quality services (sanctioned by negative feedback) before expecting that the low quality delivery will also be sanctioned by negative feedback with probability greater then . This number equals to:

As stated earlier, this lemma does not prove that the provider will become convinced that he is facing a commitment type client. It simply proves that after a finite number of rounds the provider becomes convinced that the client is playing as if she were a commitment type.

Second, if but is strictly smaller than , the rational provider does not deliver low quality (it is easy to verify that the maximum discounted future gain does not compensate for the risk of getting a negative feedback in the present round). By the previously mentioned lemma, it must be that in any equilibrium, the provider delivers low quality a finite number of times.

Third, let us analyze the round, , when the provider is about to deliver a low quality service (play ) for the last time. If is the belief of the provider that the client reports honestly in round , his expected payoff (just before deciding to deliver the low quality service) can be computed as follows:

  • with probability the client reports 0. Her reputation for reporting honestly becomes credible, so the provider plays in all subsequent rounds. The provider gains in the current round, and expects for the subsequent rounds;

  • with probability , the client reports and deviates from the commitment strategy, the provider knows he is facing a rational client, and can choose a continuation PPE strategy from the complete information game. He gains in the current round, and expects at most in the subsequent rounds;

On the other hand, had the provider acknowledged the low quality and rolled back the transaction (i.e., play ), his expected payoff would have been at least:

Since the provider chooses nonetheless to play it must be that which is equivalent to:


Finally, by replacing Equation (5) in the definition of we obtain the upper bound on the number of times the provider delivers low quality service to a client committed to report honestly.

The existence of further reduces the possible equilibrium payoffs a client can get in . Consider a rational client who receives for the first time low quality. She has the following options:

  • report negative feedback and attempt to build a reputation for reporting honestly. Her payoff for the current round is . Moreover, her worst case expectation for the future is that the next rounds will also give her , followed by the commitment payoff equal to :

  • on the other hand, by reporting positive feedback she reveals to be a normal type, loses only in the current round, and expects a continuation payoff equal to given by a PPE strategy profile of the complete information game :


The reputation mechanism records false reports only when clients do not have the incentive to build a reputation for reporting honestly, and ; this is true for:

Following the argument of Proposition 3 we can obtain a bound on the percentage of false reports recorded by the reputation mechanism in a pareto-optimal PPE that gives the client at least :


Of particular importance is the case when . and become:


so the probability of recording a false report (after the first one) can be arbitrarily close to 0 as .

For the pizza delivery example introduced in Section 3.1, Figure 3 plots the bound, , defined in Theorem 1, as a function of the prior belief () of the provider that the client is an honest reporter. We have used a value of the discount factor equal to , such that on average, every client interacts times with the same provider. The penalty for negative feedback was taken . When the provider believes that of the clients always report honestly, he will deliver at most 3 times low quality. When the belief goes up to no rational provider will deliver low quality more than once.

Figure 3: The upper bound as a function of the prior belief .

In Figure 4 we plot the values of the bounds (Equation (3)) and (Equation (8)) as a function of the prior belief . The bounds simultaneously hold, therefore the maximum percentage of false reports recorded by the reputation mechanism is the minimum of the two. When is less , , , and the reputation effect does not significantly reduce the worst case percentage of false reports recorded by the mechanism. However, when the reputation mechanism records (in the worst case) only half as many false reports, and as , the percentage of false reports drops to . This probability can be further decreased by decreasing the penalty . In the limit, as approaches 0, the reputation mechanism will register a false report with vanishing probability.

The result of Theorem 1 has to be interpreted as a worst case scenario. In real markets, providers that already have a small predisposition to cooperate will defect fewer times. Moreover, the mechanism is self enforcing, in the sense that the more clients act as commitment types, the higher will be the prior beliefs of the providers that new, unknown clients will report truthfully, and therefore the easier it will be for the new clients to act as truthful reporters.

As mentioned at the end of Section 4.2, the bound strongly depends on the punishment imposed by the reputation mechanism for a negative feedback. The higher , the easier it is for clients to build a reputation, and therefore, the lower the amount of false information recorded by the reputation mechanism.

Figure 4: The maximum probability of recording a false report as a function of the prior belief .

6 The Threat of Malicious Clients

The mechanism described so far encourages service providers to do their best and deliver good service. The clients were assumed rational, or committed to report honestly, and in either case, they never report negative feedback unfairly. In this section, we investigate what happens when clients explicitly try to “hurt” the providers by submitting fake negative ratings to the reputation mechanism.

An immediate consequence of fake negative reports is that clients lose money. However, the costs of a negative report would probably be too small to deter clients with separate agendas from hurting the provider. Fortunately, the mechanism we propose naturally protects service providers from consistent attacks initiated by malicious clients.

Formally, a malicious type client, , obtains a supplementary (external) payoff for reporting negative feedback. Obviously, has to be greater than the penalty , otherwise the results of Proposition 2 would apply. In the incomplete information game , the provider now assigns non-zero initial probability to the belief that the client is malicious.

When only the normal type, , the honest reporter type and the malicious type have non-zero initial probability, the mechanism we describe is robust against unfair negative reports. The first false negative report exposes the client as being malicious, since neither the normal, nor the commitment type report after receiving high quality. By Bayes’ Law, the provider’s updated belief following a false negative report must assign probability 1 to the malicious type. Although providers are not allowed to refuse service requests, they can protect themselves against malicious clients by playing : i.e., exert low effort and reimburse the client afterwards. The RM records neutral feedback in this case, and does not sanction the provider. Against , malicious clients are better off by quitting the market (opt ), thus stopping the attack. The RM records at most one false negative report for every malicious client, and assuming that identity changes are difficult, providers are not vulnerable to unfair punishments.

When other types (besides and ) have non-zero initial probability, malicious clients are harder to detect. They could masquerade client types that are normal, but accidentally misreport. It is not rational for the provider to immediately exclude (by playing ) normal clients that rarely misreport: the majority of the cooperative transactions rewarded by positive feedback still generate positive payoffs. Let us now consider the client type that behaves exactly like the normal type, but misreports instead of independently with probability . When interacting with the client type , the provider receives the maximum number of unfair negative reports when playing the efficient equilibrium: i.e., . In this case, the provider’s expected payoff is:

Since has to be positive (the minimax payoff of the provider is 0, given by ), it must be that .

The maximum value of is also a good approximation for the maximum percentage of false negative reports the malicious type can submit to the reputation mechanism. Any significantly higher number of harmful reports exposes the malicious type and allows the provider to defend himself.

Note, however, that the malicious type can submit a fraction of false reports only when the type

has positive prior probability. When the provider does not believe that a normal client can make so many mistakes (even if the percentage of false reports is still low enough to generate positive revenues) he attributes the false reports to a malicious type, and disengages from cooperative behavior. Therefore, one method to reduce the impact of malicious clients is to make sure that normal clients make few or no mistakes. Technical means (for example by providing automated tools for formatting and submitting feedback), or improved user interfaces (that make it easier for human users to spot reporting mistakes) will greatly limit the percentage of mistakes made by normal clients, and therefore, also reduce the amount of harm done by malicious clients.

One concrete method for reducing mistakes is to solicit only negative feedback from the clients (the principle that no news is good news, also applied by Dellarocas:2005). As reporting involves some conscious decision, mistakes will be less frequent. On the other hand, the reporting effort will add to the penalty for a negative report, and makes it harder for normal clients to establish a reputation for honest reporters. Alternative methods for reducing the harm done by malicious clients (like filtering mechanisms, etc., ) as well as tighter bounds on the percentage of false reports introduced by such clients will be further addressed in future work.

7 Discussion and Future Work

Further benefits can be obtained if the clients’ reputation for reporting honestly is shared within the market. The reports submitted by a client while interacting with other providers will change the initial beliefs of a new provider. As we have seen in Section 5, providers cheat less if they a priory expect with higher probability to encounter honest reporting clients. A client that has once built a reputation for truthfully reporting the provider’s behavior will benefit from cooperative trade during her entire lifetime, without having to convince each provider separately. Therefore the upper bound on the loss a client has to withstand in order to convince a provider that she is a commitment type, becomes an upper bound on the total loss a client has to withstand during her entire lifetime in the market. How to effectively share the reputation of clients within the market remains an open issue.

Correlated with this idea is the observation that clients that use our mechanism are motivated to keep their identity. In generalized markets where agents are encouraged to play both roles (e.g. a peer-2-peer file sharing market where the fact that an agent acts only as “provider” can be interpreted as a strong indication of “double identity” with the intention of cheating) our mechanism also solves the problem signaled by Friedman/Resnick:2001 related to cheap online pseudonyms. The price to pay for the new identity is the loss due to building a reputation as truthful reporter when acting as a client.

Unlike incentive-compatible mechanism that pay reporters depending on the feedback provided by peers, the mechanism described here is less vulnerable to collusion. The only reason individual clients would collude is to badmouth (i.e., artificially decrease the reputation of) a provider. However, as long as the punishment for negative feedback is not super-linear in the number of reports (this is usually the case), coordinating within a coalition brings no benefits for the colluders: individual actions are just as effective as the actions when part of a coalition. The collusion between the provider and client can only accelerate the synchronization of strategies on one of the PPE profiles (collusion on a non-PPE strategy profile is not stable), which is rather desirable. The only profitable collusion can happen when competitor providers incentivize normal clients to unfairly downrate their current provider. Colluding clients become malicious in this case, and the limits on the harm they can do are presented in Section 6.

The mechanism we describe here is not a general solution for all online markets. In general retail e-commerce, clients don’t usually interact with the same service provider more than once. As we have showed along this paper, the assumption of a repeated interaction is crucial for our results. Nevertheless, we believe there are several scenarios of practical importance that do meet our requirements (e.g., interactions that are part of a supply chain). For these, our mechanism can be used in conjunction with other reputation mechanisms to guarantee reliable feedback and improve the overall efficiency of the market.

Our mechanism can be further criticized for being centralized. The reputation mechanism acts as a central authority by supervising monetary transactions, collecting feedback and imposing penalties on the participants. However, we see no problem in implementing the reputation mechanism as a distributed system. Different providers can use different reputation mechanisms, or, can even switch mechanisms given that some safeguarding measures are in place. Concrete implementations remain to be addressed by future work.

Although we present a setting where the service always costs the same amount, our results can be easily extended to scenarios where the provider may deliver different kinds of services, having different prices. As long as the provider believes that requests are randomly drawn from some distribution, the bounds presented above can be computed using the average values of , and . The constraint on the provider’s belief is necessary in order to exclude some unlikely situations where the provider cheats on a one time high value transaction, knowing that the following interactions carry little revenue, and therefore, cannot impose effective punishments.

In this paper, we systematically overestimate the bounds on the worst case percentage of false reports recorded by the mechanism. The computation of tight bounds requires a precise quantitative description of the actual set of PPE payoffs the client and the provider can have in . Fudenberg/Levine/Maskin:1994 and Abreu/Pearce/Stacchetti:1990 pose the theoretical grounds for computing the set of PPE payoffs in an infinitely repeated game with discount factors strictly smaller than 1. However, efficient algorithms that allow us to find this set are still an open question. As research in this domain progresses, we expect to be able to significantly lower the upper bounds described in Sections 4 and 5.

One direction of future research is to study the behavior of the above mechanism when there is two-sided incomplete information: i.e. the client is also uncertain about the type of the provider. A provider type of particular importance is the “greedy” type who always likes to keep the client to a continuation payoff arbitrarily close to the minimal one. In this situation we expect to be able to find an upper bound on the number of rounds in which a rational client would be willing to test the true type of the provider. The condition describes the constraints on the parameters of the system for which the reputation effect will work in the favor of the client: i.e. the provider will give up first the “psychological” war and revert to a cooperative equilibrium.

The problem of involuntary reporting mistakes briefly mentioned in Section 6 needs further addressing. Besides false negative mistakes (reporting instead of ), normal clients can also make false positive mistakes (report instead of the intended ). In our present framework, one such mistake is enough ro ruin the reputation of a normal type client to report honestly. This is one of the reasons why we chose a sequential model where the feedback of the client is not required if the provider acknowledges low quality. Once the reputation of the client becomes credible, the provider always rolls back the transactions that generate (accidentally or not) low quality, so the client is not required to continuously defend her reputation. Nevertheless, the consequences of reporting mistakes in the reputation building phase must be considered in more detail. Similarly, mistakes made by the provider, monitoring and communication errors will also influence the results presented here.

Last, but not the least, practical implementations of the mechanism we propose must address the problem of persistent online identities. One possible attack created by easy identity changes has been mentioned in Section 6: malicious buyers can continuously change identity in order to discredit the provider. In another attack, the provider can use fake identities to increase his revenue. When punishments for negative feedback are generated endogenously by decreased prices in a fixed number of future transactions [<]e.g.,¿Dellarocas:2005, the provider can adopt the following strategy: he cheats on all real customers, but generates a sufficient number of fake transactions in between two real transactions, such that the effect created by the real negative report disappears. An easy fix to this latter attack is to charge transaction or entrance fees. However, these measures also affect the overall efficiency of the market, and therefore, different applications will most likely need individual solutions.

8 Conclusions

Effective reputation mechanisms must provide appropriate incentives in order to obtain honest feedback from self-interested clients. For environments characterized by adverse selection, direct payments can explicitly reward honest information by conditioning the amount to be paid on the information reported by other peers. The same technique unfortunately does not work when service providers have moral hazard, and can individually decide which requests to satisfy. Sanctioning reputation mechanisms must therefore use other mechanisms to obtain reliable feedback.

In this paper we describe an incentive-compatible reputation mechanism when the clients also have a repeated presence in the market. Before asking feedback from the clients, we allow the provider to acknowledge failures and reimburse the price paid for service. When future transactions generate sufficient profit, we prove that there is an equilibrium where the provider behaves as socially desired: he always exerts effort, and reimburses clients that occasionally receive bad service due to uncontrollable factors. Moreover, we analyze the set of pareto-optimal equilibria of the mechanism, and establish a limit on the maximum amount of false information recorded by the mechanism. The bound depends both on the external alternatives available to clients and on the ease with which they can commit to reporting the truth.

Appendix A Proof of Proposition 2

The probability that the client reports negative feedback on the equilibrium path of any pareto-optimal PPE strategy is zero.


Step 1. Following the principle of dynamic programming [Abreu, Pearce,  StacchettiAbreu et al.1990], the payoff profile is a PPE of , if and only if there is a strategy profile in , and the continuation PPE payoffs profiles of , such that:

  • is obtained by playing in the current round, and a PPE strategy that gives as a continuation payoff, where is the public outcome of the current round, and is the probability of observing after playing :

  • no player finds it profitable to deviate from :

The strategy and the payoff profiles are said to enforce .

Step 2. Take the PPE payoff profile , such that there is no other PPE payoff profile with . Let and enforce , and assume that assigns positive probability to the outcome . If (possibly equal to 0), let us consider:

  • the strategy profile where is obtained from by asking the client to report instead of when she receives low quality (i.e., );

  • the continuation payoffs such that and for . Since, the set of correlated PPE payoff profiles of is convex, if are PPE payoff profiles, so are .

The payoff profile , is a PPE equilibrium profile because it can be enforced by and . However, this contradicts our assumption that , so must be 0. Following exactly the same argument, we can prove that .

Step 3. Taking , and from step 2, we have:


If no other PPE payoff profile can have , it must be that the continuation payoffs satisfy the same property. (Assume otherwise that there is a PPE with . Replacing in (10) we obtain that contradicts the hypothesis).

By continuing the recursion, we obtain that the client never reports on the equilibrium path that enforces a payoff profile as defined in Step 2. Pareto-optimal payoff profiles clearly enter this category, hence the result of the proposition.

Appendix B Proof of Proposition 3

The upper bound on the percentage of false reports recorded by the reputation mechanism in any PPE equilibrium is:

Proof. Since clients never report negative feedback along pareto-optimal equilibria, the only false reports recorded by the reputation mechanism appear when the provider delivers low quality, and the client reports positive feedback. Let be a pareto-optimal PPE strategy profile. induces a probability distribution over public histories and, therefore, over expected outcomes in each of the following transactions. Let be the probability distribution induced by over the outcomes in round . as proven by Proposition 2. The payoff received by the client when playing is therefore:

where and , because the probability of is at least times the probability of .

When the discount factor, , is the probability that the repeated interaction will stop after each transaction, the expected probability of the outcome is:

Since any PPE profile must give the client at least , (otherwise the client is better off by resorting to the outside option), . By replacing the expression of , and taking into account the constraints on the probability of we obtain:


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