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Is data the new oil or something else?

It is not just India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, who has termed data the new oil, top leaders of the country including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad have on several occasions likened data to oil.
Is data the new oil or something else?

Modi described data as the "new oil" and the "new gold" even at the 'Howdy, Modi!' event at Houston in the US. This comparison often stems from the fact that India considers data as wealth and also as a driving force of its growing digital economy.

However, global technology giants who have access to a vast majority of data generated everyday in the world do not like this definition, probably because they do not want to be seen as custodian of this huge "wealth".

Rather than likening data to oil over which only a few countries exercise massive control, data should be as accessible as electricity, according to Microsoft President Brad Smith. This will ensure that data does not become the province of a few large companies and countries, according to him.

Refusing to believe that data is the new oil, Smith feels that when it comes to modern civilization, data is more like the air we breathe than the oil we burn.

"Some say that data has become the oil of the 21st century. But this understates the reality. A century ago, automobiles, airplanes, and many trains ran on oil. Today, every aspect of human life is fueled by data," Smith writes in his techno-legal thriller, titled "Tools and Weapons: The promise and pearls of the digital age".

"Unlike oil, data has become a renewable resource that we humans can create ourselves. This decade will end with almost 25 times as much digital data as when it began with Artificial Intelligence (AI). We are doing more with data than ever before".

Visiting India last month, after becoming Facebook's Vice-President of Global Affairs and Communications, Nicholas Clegg said that data should not be called the "new oil" as oil is something that is owned and traded.

A better liquid to liken data to is water, according to Clegg, who is a former Deputy Prime Minister of Britain.

The value of data, he said, comes not from hoarding it, or trading it like a finite commodity. Rather the value of data comes from the innovations that stem from the free flow of data, the algorithms and services that can be built on top of it.

According to policy analyst K. Yatish Rajawat, data is not the new oil as that analogy distorts its importance and it also assumes ownership in the hands of a few. Data is more like water as we intuitively know its importance but have never defined its ownership, clearly.

In Rajawat's view, data, like water, also has individual and distributed ownership. Individuals have clear rights to their own data and its usage. But anonymous non-personal citizen data has to be governed in such a manner that it promotes entrepreneurship and innovation. Therefore, a set of data's ownership can be distributed and treated like public good(s), he said.

( With inputs from IANS )

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