Just over a century ago — 107 years ago to be precise — the United States Supreme Court made a landmark ruling to break up the Standard Oil Company, ruling that it was an illegal monopoly.
At its peak, Standard controlled nearly 90 percent of the country’s oil production, to the frustration of the government and the general public alike. It struck deals with railroads, refineries, pipeline operators, and marketing companies, tapping the oil wealth buried beneath the American continent to amass a legendary fortune for founder John D. Rockefeller.
But in 1911, after the filing of an antitrust lawsuit by the Department of Justice two years previously, Standard Oil was ordered to be broken up into 34 smaller companies each of which operated independently. The ruling was made so as to foster greater competition in the field, and to break up a trust that was acting against the best interests of the American people.
For much of the 20th century, it was these kind of fossil fuel companies along with manufacturing firms like Ford Motors and General Electric that were the archetypal American corporations. But in the 21st century a new commercial model emerged: that of the information economy. Last year, British financial magazine The Economist wrote: “The most valuable resource is no longer oil — it’s data.”
Information has always been valuable, of course. But it had never before been a resource that was generated, captured, analyzed and indexed at such a huge scale. The data economy has spawned its own infrastructure for delivery: Instead of pipelines, undersea fiber optic cables. Instead of oil rigs and refineries, server farms and data storage centers. And most of this wildly valuable data is about us: Regular internet users, with our likes and dislikes, our credit scores, spending habits, political opinions, geographical locations, travel preferences, and so on.
So if we generate the data, why don’t we have a say in how it’s used?
The answer comes down to ownership. As the new data economy birthed internet giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon, as users of these platforms we entered into a deal we didn’t even know we were making: give up control of our personal data as the price of using an otherwise free service. Theorist Shoshana Zuboff has given the economic model a name: “surveillance capitalism”. Just like commodity capitalism, Zuboff writes, surveillance capitalism began with an accumulation phase in which large companies took over the resources provided by individual participants, without sharing the dividends.
By the time the value of this resource became clear, it was too late: individuals had already ceded ownership of their data to tech giants.