Data to the People

India’s Inclusive Internet

At an Aadhaar registration center in New Delhi, January 2018.

Data, the techno-optimists are fond of saying, is the new oil. It is the fuel of the modern economy, a valuable commodity that can be bought and sold, and a strategic resource for nations. Indeed, digital assets now matter far more than physical ones. As the writer Tom Goodwin has pointed out, “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.” As with oil in another era, the market today has generously rewarded those who have best captured data. In 2006, three of the world’s six most valuable public firms were oil companies, and just one was a technology company. By 2016, only one oil company remained in the top six. The rest were tech giants. 

But the oil metaphor has turned out to be inaccurate—not because it overhyped the role of data but because it failed to warn us just how pervasive and problematic our relationship with data would become. The Internet, it has become clear, is not so free, after all; users are paying in the form of personal information, which is collected by “data brokers” and sold to third parties. Earlier this year, news broke that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested personal data from tens of millions of Facebook users and sold it to political campaigns. The scandal showed how malicious actors could wield data to threaten the democratic process, and it led to a congressional hearing featuring an apologetic Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, and prompted broader soul-searching about the power of massive technology compa­nies. At its peak, Standard Oil could influence what people paid for fuel, but today’s big technology companies can influence what people think.

The world is beginning to suspect that the basic incentive structure of the Internet itself may be flawed. Many online businesses face

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