Freedom in the Cloud?

Is there freedom in the Cloud and who owns your data???

by Michal Smith

Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and outspoken critic of anything proprietary, recently slammed ‘cloud computing’ as “stupidity” and a “marketing hype campaign”.

It makes sense the Stallman is against cloud computing - by its very nature it requires you to be running software on someone else’s machine, which you have no control over. Such an idea is repugnant to Stallman and other free software purists, as it does not guarantee you as a user any freedom.

The problem is, though, that cloud computing looks set to be the next big thing. There are probably a number of advantages to moving your data and applications off your local machine and accessing them from any device, rather than them being stuck to a single physical device and this is especially useful for the so-called “road warrior” but...

And that is where the but comes in, in my opinion. The but is about access and about who owns your data.

While cloud computing does not necessarily have to be incompatible with the concept of free software and open source the problem is, as far as I am concerned, and many others, the subject of who owns the data and the access to the data.

When reading the small print in the EULAs of so many of the services then the great majority, and especially here the free services and those that are most popular, take it upon themselves to claim that as soon as you put stuff up onto their servers in the cloud you have given them copyright to the material you are storing there.

Richard Stallman's issue with “in the cloud” is, I assume, that most of the services are not free software/open source software but someone's proprietary software used on someone else's server. This is not, predominately my concern, and also not that of most people that I have spoken with. My concern and theirs is simply the fact that (1) they may not be able to access the data for one reason or the other and (2) that most of the service providers take upon themselves, through the EULAs the right to your data and mine if it is stored on their servers.

Some people, even in the free and open source field, think that Stallman’s stance on this issue is untenable and reckon that cloud computing is likely to continue to be an important market
and they also reckon that free and open software must corner that market to some large degree. What most forget, probably, is that open source software will already be running on many of those servers for cloud computing for many of them will, more than likely, be Apache servers. If free software does not evolve to have a presence in that market, it could seriously suffer, some reckon.

The issue that really needs to be addressed, in my opinion, is not whether those applications run proprietary software or free and open source, for to me as a user that is hardly relevant. What needs to be addressed is whether my data is my data and remains that exclusively until such a time that I expressly give someone the written authority for each and every individual article or picture, or whatever, a user right, and also as to whether I will be able to get at my data at any time, day or night, as and when I need it.

Another important factor needed is that there is going to be an open exchange of data between applications, whether Google or who- or whatever.

Open data exchange is another important issue in empowering users to have the freedom to switch between solutions, rather than being locked in as soon as they have put data into a system. It should be noted that in some cases this is already possible - Google Calendar iCalendar exports, for example, and many ‘cloud’ webmail services offering POP or IMAP access to get your messages out.

The largest concern here is and remains the fact someone else is holding your data, and that, in the great majority of instances, they elect that they have shared copyright with you over your data. This means that they could data mine your data for information about you, the user; that they could lock you out of it for a ransom, if they would want to do so, or a third party could hack that site and do that; that they could simply go down for no reason for any length of time thereby, even if unintentional, deny you access to your data for however long (this happened to me with Yahoo services, e.g. My Web 2.0 bookmarks); they could ‘lose’ your data; and many other things. I do use Gmail, together with Yahoo Mail, for email and I also use Yahoo's My Web 2.0 for bookmarks in the cloud, and also Google Calendar, and iScrybe, but will think very hard before handing all of my data over to one of these services.

I also must say that whatever the case, I cannot, actually see the reason for using “in the cloud” for anything else but webmail, for sharing of documents and photos with friends, family and co-workers, for online cooperation of some documents and such, as well as for keeping bookmarks backed up in that way. Actual proper storage of data, whether documents or photos, online to me does not compute.

But then that is my personal opinion in the same way as Richard Stallman has his opinion against “cloud computing”.

However, storage media, including external hard drives are today that cheap that to me storing online does not make any sense at all.

As a solution to the possibility of those services getting access to the data it has been suggested by someone that one could encrypt the data and it was said that that would ensure that whoever gets that data can’t really have access to it. While that may be so to some degree it would also mean that each and every time that the user, namely you and I, would like to access our data stored there in the cloud to, for instance, do some work “on the move” from somewhere around the world, we would have to have the means to decrypt the data with us. Not always feasible if you are using a computer other than your own that holds the appropriate encryption/decryption software and keys.

Encryption is not the solution as the data would still reside on someone else's computers and servers and your access to the data would be dependant on their systems being rumnning properly at all times. Often it is just at the mission critical times that you cannot then lay your hands on the particular document or other piece of data simply because it is held on someone's machine the service of which just has gone wobbly for an hour or so or, if unlucky, a day or more even.

Working on corporate machines from remote, so-called satellite, locations already sometimes shows that problem in that the server may be inaccessible for this or that reason and I have experienced it to be so for more than a day at times.

Give me an external hard drive any day rather than something somewhere that I have no control over, regardless, and sorry of I upset some of the open source fraternity, whether that service runs free and open source software or not. To me, though I am an advocate of free and open source software, it does not mater what the system runs. And because I cannot be certain how well it is running and whether or not someone might like to make use of something I have written and claim that I have given them the right to use the material I insist that my material and my data resides with me as far as possible. If need be I go and salvage a number of hard drive from “obsolete” PCs and create my own server station at home.

While new technology certainly should be used to make our lives easier, and having some material “in the cloud” for when we are on the move maybe fine but I think that one best stick with application such as webmail, calendars, and such, and has the rest of the material on other media. Even USB drives with 16GB are now available and they no longer cost the earth, and while I would strongly suggest to keep that data backed up elsewhere, they are grat for on the move.

© M Smith (Veshengro), October 2008