Brightening the metaphor for data use

“Data is more like sunlight than oil,” proclaimed Google CFO Ruth Porat this week at the World Economic Forum. “It is like sunshine, we keep using it and it keeps regenerating."
The data-as-sunshine idea is quickly replacing the old motto of the information age: “data is the new oil.” Though the sunshine simile isn’t new and Google isn’t the only corporation to push it, Porat’s remark raised eyebrows around the tech industry, as it came a day after Google was fined €50 million ($57 million) in France for failing to provide adequate transparency and obtain necessary consent for gathering user data under the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules.
Google, like almost all companies offering free services, collects staggering amounts of user data in order to create “smarter” advertisements — and it works. Google made $27.77 billion revenue in the third quarter of 2018 alone, with $24 billion of that from ads.
The GDPR rules, which went into effect this summer, require informed user consent to data collection. The GDPR is why many websites now give visitors a long list of checkboxes to opt in or out of various types of data collection. American companies and websites are required to comply with user consent rules if they handle personal data from European users — including names, email address, and IP address. The companies whose business models depend on collecting user data aren’t thrilled.
“A lot of U.S. companies have dumped everything they do in a consent box and have people waive their rights,” said Max Schrems, an Austrian privacy advocate, to the New York Times. Schrems, a lawyer, founded one of the privacy groups that brought the case against Google.
“We’re deeply committed to... the consent requirements of the GDPR,” said a Google spokesperson in reference to this week’s ruling on the fine.
It’s understandable why Google, increasingly cast as a data-monopolizing villain in privacy controversies, would want consumers to think of data like sunlight — free, clean, available for universal use, and ultimately harmless — instead of oil. Creating this new conceptual framework works in favor of companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft because it avoids a direct comparison between tech industry leaders and greedy oil barons.
The original comparison of data to oil is attributed to English mathematician Clive Humby, who drew the analogy in 2006. Michael Palmer of Britain’s Association of National Advertisers elaborated in a 2013 Guardian article: “Data is just like crude. It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc. to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analyzed for it to have value.” As data analytics has become centered in the tech economy, those who have the biggest datasets and the capacity to analyze them have the most power.
No analogy is perfect. But describing data as sunshine portrays companies like Google as cheerfully benign gatherers of a limitless natural resource, when privacy advocates see them as playing a more insidious role.
Data doesn’t come from the sky: it comes from users. While it’s still unclear if a person’s data can really ‘belong’ to them, tech companies take advantage of practical and ethical ambiguities to gather as much data as they can in the name of creating more targeted advertisements.