2021v28, Friday: Not oil.

Getting the analogy wrong can ruin policy, as our approach to data has shown. And turning to real fossil fuels: two big, big events involving an oil company and a coal mine.

Short thought: Taking a short break from thingification, this week marks three years since the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR as most of us know it, came into force.

Many hate it. It’s caused a huge amount of work for organisations of all kinds. It’s clunky, imprecise, open to vast interpretation as to how its extensive obligations should be implemented, and therefore tends towards lengthy tickbox exercises rather than the “privacy by design and default” which is, to me, the heart of the whole exercise.

And, of course, it leads to all those dialogs every time you log into a website. And more recently, also the pointless and aggravating requests that you acknowledge the site’s legitimate interest in using your data any way they want. 

(Pointless because if push came to legal shove, I can’t believe a court would waste more than a few seconds on any such factor. Your legitimate interests aren’t something you can just sign away. Particularly not without genuine consideration. Yet another piece of annoying figleaf. Aggravating for the same reason.)

But I still think the anniversary is worth celebrating. Because GDPR did something really important. It enshrined, far more strongly than its predecessor legislation the core principle that your data is yours. It’s not some public resource that organisations can use however they want; some commons they can enclose at will. 

Analogies are important here – and yes, I realise we’re back on stories again, because when the story’s wrong, our responses to it are wrong too. Here, the problem is the dominant analogy: “data is the new oil” is a phrase often bandied around, but as Matt Locke notes here, this is entirely the wrong categorisation:

The discussions around data policy still feel like they are framing data as oil – as a vast, passive resource that either needs to be exploited or protected. But this data isn’t dead fish from millions of years ago – it’s the thoughts, emotions and behaviours of over a third of the world’s population, the largest record of human thought and activity ever collected. It’s not oil, it’s history. It’s people. It’s us.

To indulge in a bit of shameless exaggeration, treating data as a common untapped resource from which anyone can make a buck is akin – in direction if not in scale – to treating Swift’s Modest Proposal as a sensible contribution to the argument on population control.

Think of data as a part of ourselves, and suddenly the priorities change. Stories like the UK government’s attempt – again! – to give relatively unfettered commercial access to health data become as vile as they seem. (On that, instructions to opt out are here – the deadline’s 23 June.)

It’s not oil. It’s us.


Ultra-short before-thoughts: While we’re on the subject of oil, a couple of interesting items which I haven’t had time properly to process yet:

  • A small investment outfit has managed to force directors onto the board of Exxon who actually care about climate change. My recent reading of The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson, has been scaring me witless, and bringing me to the belated realisation of just how much harm climate change naysayers have done to my daughter’s future. About damn time.
  • This one I really want to read and consider: an Australian federal court has denied an application by several children for an injunction to stop a vast open-cast coal mine. But in doing so, it’s found something legally fascinating and with huge potential implications: that there is a duty of care on a government minister to consider what such a project will do to those children’s futures. To anyone with a nodding acquaintance with the common law jurisprudence of negligence, this is immense: new duties of care rarely emerge, with courts (at least in England and Wales) highly reluctant to go beyond existing categories of duty; and only then incrementally and with small steps, based on analogy with existing duties. (For a really good explanation of how this works, see the case of Robinson in the UK Supreme Court.) I really, really need to see how the judge in Australia reached this conclusion (which is at [490-491] of the judgment). I’m on vacation next week, so I might have time to take it in. 

Because I’m on vacation, no promises about posts next week. I’’ll try to take thingification a bit further forward, and there’s so much to do on privacy. We’ll see where we get to.


(If you’d like to read more like this, and would prefer it simply landing in your inbox three or so times a week, please go ahead and subscribe at https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com/.)

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