Big Oil, Big Data and the shape of water

The Digital Alarmist

Roger Marshall a computer scientist, a newly minted Luddite and a cynic.

Facebook’s vice president for global affairs and communications, Nick Clegg, recently met Home Minister Amit Shah and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. After the meetings, Clegg stated that there were many in India and around the world who think of data as the new oil to be held within national boundaries but that it was a mistaken analogy. In his opinion, since the global internet was a great borderless ocean of currents and tide, data should not be owned or traded like a finite commodity such as oil but treated more like water, its utility stemming from allowing it to flow freely and that the innovations resulting from the free flow of data would have the potential to bring much greater wealth to India. Clegg also remarked that due to India’s stand on local control of data, the country was finding itself locked out of major global data-sharing initiatives aimed at clamping down on serious crime and terrorism.

It is understandable that Facebook would trot out major public figures such as Clegg to advance bogus arguments to prevent data localization legislation efforts from gaining traction in various countries across the globe, including India. Since Facebook’s principal business model is predicated on the commercialization of user data for advertising and political purposes, ensuring free availability of such data is absolutely essential to enriching the company’s coffers. Paying lip service to privacy concerns, crime and national security interests is nothing more than a public relations stunt.

Are you ready for some history lessons on water, Mr Clegg?

In their book, Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop Corporate Theft of the World’s Water, authors Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke provide numerous examples of how just three of the wealthiest companies in the world -- Suez and Vivendi of France, and RWE-Thames Water of Germany – managed to privatize freely available water in over 130 countries (such as Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico and Peru) and now control over 70% of the existing water service market worldwide. Their success was greatly facilitated by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, which made private water delivery a ‘condition’ for countries seeking loans or debt relief.

The damaging effects of water privatization are well-documented in the book. These effects include rate hikes, reduced water quality, huge profits for corporate investors, secret contracts, bribery and corruption. A particularly egregious example is that of the US engineering conglomerate Bechtel which, in Bolivia, charged people for taking water from their own wells and for the rainwater collected on their roofs. How would you like it if Facebook charged you for looking at your own data collected by the company?

There have been numerous wars fought and democracies overthrown for the control of oil resources, be it in Iraq, Iran or elsewhere. There are bound to be wars in the future, except that these will be for the control of data. No ‘boots on the ground’ but cyberwars. Equally effective. Both data and troublesome individuals can be made to disappear at the press of a button. Drones and facial recognition software are always on the standby. Not unlike warships lurking off the coast.

If the Libra cryptocurrency ever gains worldwide acceptance, it is not too far-fetched to imagine that all transactions involving user data will require payments in Libra currency. Of course, the prime beneficiary will be Facebook since it not only has a virtual monopoly on user data but is also the chief sponsor of Libra. One shudders at the thought of Facebook becoming digital society’s version of the World Bank.

By the way, how is it that executives of companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Walmart and Uber get to meet with the Indian prime minister and his cabinet ministers but you never read about the executives of major Indian companies such as Infosys or Wipro being allowed to meet with the US president or the British prime minister? White privilege has its benefits, I am sure.

Dear reader, if you are not familiar with the phrase ‘snake oil salesman’, it is time you looked it up.

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