Is data really the new-found oil?

In 1989, Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web (WWW) with the aim of sharing information across multiple computers. It was also meant to give marginalised voices a platform to express their voices. However, the commercialisation of the web brought about the commodification of user data, and by extension, second-order effects that birthed a complex web of data surveillance, brokerage and resale.

During the March 12 commemoration of 30 years of the Web, Sir Berners-Lee raised critical privacy and personal data protection issues when he said “you should have complete control of your data. It’s not oil. It’s not a commodity.” Yet, many governments, businesses, think-tanks, researchers, and journalists seem to have unanimously concluded that data is the new oil. It is a conclusion that might have drastic socio-economic and political consequences.

The Internet’s business model is built on advertising; the more users visit a website or use a digital product (for example, Google search), the more revenue an online business generates from advertisers.

The rise of social media platforms such as Facebook in the early 2000s enabled similar platforms to profile their users based on disaggregated data such as age, gender, location, browsing habits, purchase history, etc, for financial gain through extremely targeted approaches never seen before - especially in the advertising industry. The data generated about users became a sort of currency.

On the other hand, oil is a liquid extracted from deep in the earth, its barrels refined, and then transported into bunkers all over the world. Unlike data, oil’s supply is finite. While the lifecycle of data begins when it is harvested (say through sleep sensors or social media activity), stored in data warehouses, and shared with data brokers or sold to analytics and marketing firms, oil is different: It burns and wastes. Data can be re-shared/re-sold.

However, the thinking behind the “data as the new oil” could have been contorted to align data dividends to oil dividends such as the annual $1,600-per-person oil dividend doled out to Alaskans from their petroleum fund. The average annual revenue per user for Facebook globally is about $7.37. The dividend or tax accruing from one’s data use or resale is dismal and no match for oil dividends, at least in the foreseeable future.

As mentioned by WIRED in a recent article (, “users of social media giants may think that all their photos and messages are being ground into money; in fact, those items are mostly news feed filler to keep their eyeballs there and target them via other data.”

The sources of other data include data sharing partnerships between Facebook and other organisations dealing in marketing, health, insurance, banking, among others.
Daniel Mwesigwa,
[email protected]


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