Cloud computing: YOUR data right?

by Urs E. Gattiker on 2009/07/30 · 24 comments 9,593 views

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BlackBerry users take advantage of cloud computing by having their emails routed to and from RIM (Research in Motion) servers in North America and the UK. However, a bungled attempt by the United Arab Emirates’ largest telecommunications operator to install surveillance software on subscribers’ units has shown how problematic the new system can be.

What’s the big idea?
Cloud computing has many definitions.

    Imagine a world where most of the functions of our personal computers – running applications, communicating, and storing data – would not take place on those computers but rather at massive computer server farms located in remote locations and linked through high-speed networks. This is not the stuff of science fiction but rather ‘cloud computing’, one of the hottest Internet and computing trends. Michael Geist – The Race Toward Clean Cloud Computing (2008-02-11)

But that merely describes a business model in which software is delivered as a service or computing based on the utility model.

More importantly, this is not a new insight: Google CEO Eric Schmidt already described cloud computing during a 2006 conference presentation.

Since late 2007 a different definition has gained prevalence.

    Cloud computing means scaling up one’s application by deploying it on a large grid of commodity servers. Each server or computer is an exact image of the other. Hence, the same system is installed on each machine, thereby assuring that each box behaves like all other boxes. Critical is the load balancer, which forwards a request to any one box and it is processed in a stateless manner. This means that the request is followed by an immediate response and no state is held by the system.

Challenge: Who owns the data?
However, the above definition does not address ownership: traditional data storage on your server or PC makes the information yours at the access point, but cloud computing complicates everything. Google or Amazon may have a legal responsibility to remove data from a server or client device under laws such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the US.

As demonstrated by their remote removal of 1984 from all Kindles, Amazon has the power to control information on client systems. To avoid being exposed to liability when illegal copies of the book started to appear, the company went for broke: once customers connected to Sprint’s Whispernet, it deleted the book from all units.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos quickly posted an apology to customers:

    …Our “solution” to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles… we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward…

Nevertheless, the question remains: who owns the digital content on your Kindle – you as the customer or Amazon as the data facilitator? The Kindle maker has failed to outline what will happen next time, but it seems probable that Amazon will react similarly in future, violating users’ rights.

Bottom line
Storing data using cloud computing (like Google Chrome OS does) means there is no local storage, so nothing can be owned, only rented. The only way around this problem is to download data and images to one’s PC.

New cloud computing-based platforms hammer home an uncomfortable lesson. To evade liability, Amazon can – and will – use its power to control information on any Kindle, thereby overriding the owner’s wishes, even though the customer bought and paid for the unit. What stops Google from blocking Chrome OS users from accessing their data?

Worse, servers can be located anywhere around the globe no matter where the customer is, so which laws apply and under what circumstances? As a user it is impossible to be completely prepared, since some data may be stored in country A today, while the rest is in country B tomorrow, something all user agreements clearly stipulate. The devil is in the details.

Okay, now it’s your turn. Would you have responded to any of these issues differently and if so, how? Did we miss something? Agree, disagree, shout with joy, cry with pleasure… please share your thoughts.

P.S. – If you still trust Kindle to store your digital content, then Robin Broitman has a great post: 80+ Social Media eBooks for Your Kindle.

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