Has Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice-president, global affairs and communications, stated the obvious? Data isn’t oil, he is reported to have said. This need not have made news had the analogy of data and oil not been so popular in India. The big difference, Clegg pointed out, was that while oil is finite, data isn’t. More and more keeps getting generated. Hoarding it within a country’s physical borders, he argued, was not a good idea. Instead of localizing consumer data, he would rather have unrestricted cross-border flows of it in the general interest of everyone.

The original formulation of data as “the new oil", however, was not about finitude. When data maven Clive Humby first made that assertion, he simply meant that data is to the digital era what oil was to the industrial age. These days, it refers to the market power at the disposal of a dominant player, one that’s in a position to control its flow—turn its spigots open or shut, so to speak. Just as Saudi Arabia could make super normal profits off oil, Facebook is seen to have such an ability. In that sense, its bulk possession could spin the sort of money this century that oil did in the 20th.

Another similarity is that, as a resource, data is useless if left unrefined. It only delivers value once it’s mined and analyzed for specific purposes. Whether this necessarily means databases on Indians should reside within India, though, is not clear. If it has to slip into the wrong hands, it could happen anywhere.

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