Thursday, October 7, 2010

Cloud Computing: Take Me to Your Data

Netbooks were a great idea when they first started to appear, weren't they? Just a tiny little laptop with enough power for a number of day to day activities, super-portable, great for note-taking and other classroom activities, really the perfect solution for any student--or professor for that matter.

So it wasn't surprising at all to see the release of some basic apps that were run completely from a web page. Word processor, spreadsheet app, etc. Netbooks can connect to and use these apps straight from a browser. And with Google's proposed Linux distro, Chrome OS, being made specifically for netbooks that would have links to these various apps by default, it seems likely that other netbook distros and Windows releases etc. will have their own cloud apps to choose from as well.

Of course this "cloud computing" idea isn't anything new. Web-based email clients have been around for over 10 years. Web-based IRC chat clients have been around for even longer. Soon after that primitive WYSIWYG HTML editors started to surface as well. So what is the problem with the expansion of this idea into other realms that could even be used professionally (and who cares if the big corporations providing these services give it a slick name like "cloud computing")?

This article is going to focus on Google, as they seem to be at the forefront of this whole coming change. Google of course has come under fire for their data-collecting practices revolving around the Google search engine. It's actually this practice that gets my paranoia-nerves on edge. Collecting IP addresses correlated with specific searches categorized in a searchable database is to me unethical to say the least. One can only imagine the purpose to something like this. I personally no longer use Google for my searches, and am very careful with the content I upload or view using other Google services.

Here I'd like to move away from Google briefly and talk about Facebook. Facebook is also a cloud service with a whopping 500 million users. It needs no introduction; everyone is aware of it. What you may not realize is that anything a user posts on Facebook is no longer theirs. Facebook now owns it. Here are a couple of quotes from Facebook's terms of service agreement:

“You hereby grant Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings or (ii) enable a user to Post, including by offering a Share Link on your website and (b) to use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, including commercial or advertising, each of (a) and (b) on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof.”

"We may collect information about you from other Facebook users, such as when a friend tags you in a photo, video, or place, provides friend details, or indicates a relationship with you."

"We may retain the details of transactions or payments you make on Facebook."

And going back to Google, here is a quote from YouTube's terms of service that must be agreed to before uploading:

“…by submitting the User Submissions to YouTube, you hereby grant YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the User Submissions in connection with the YouTube Website and YouTube’s (and its successor’s) business… in any media formats and through any media channels.”

My main concern here is ownership of content. Never mind the privacy infractions. The following quote is from the "Terms" link followed from Google Docs, although I believe it is the same document for all of Google's services:

"By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. This license is for the sole purpose of enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the Services and may be revoked for certain Services as defined in the Additional Terms of those Services.

11.2 You agree that this license includes a right for Google to make such Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals with whom Google has relationships for the provision of syndicated services, and to use such Content in connection with the provision of those services.

11.3 You understand that Google, in performing the required technical steps to provide the Services to our users, may (a) transmit or distribute your Content over various public networks and in various media; and (b) make such changes to your Content as are necessary to conform and adapt that Content to the technical requirements of connecting networks, devices, services or media. You agree that this license shall permit Google to take these actions.

11.4 You confirm and warrant to Google that you have all the rights, power and authority necessary to grant the above license."

As you can see, by uploading any content to Google's services, you give up any right to ownership and privacy as far as the content of the files are concerned. Beyond this we are faced with the "push" towards cloud computing like it is the future, and who is leading the charge to this bright utopia? Google of course! And people eat it up, even though it is completely unnecessary. Even tablet PCs now have the power to run the basic apps that are being offered from these online services. And if a file is created locally, no one has the rights to it but you. It's really no wonder that there is this push. In a time when no one reads these terms and conditions but blindly clicks "OK" and happily (and usually unknowingly) gives up all private and commercial rights to whatever content is being used, shared and/or being created, this is a fantastic way to get rights to virtually all digital content "in the cloud".

So there is no way that I would trust any of these services with any kind of sensitive data. There is no reason to state right in the terms of service that they have the right to share my data with anyone if the intention to do so isn't there. But here's my dirty little secret: I actually like the idea of cloud computing. I like the idea of owning a tablet PC with a 3G connection accessing my files from anywhere to work with or share at any time I please. There's a freedom in that idea that I can only liken to Star Trek. It's just really cool. So can we still use this technology and get around the Google problem?

Yes. And that solution does not involve choosing a different provider for these services. No matter what is in the service agreement the truth is I don't like the idea of just leaving all my digital content on a server at an unknown location, and someone else controlling my access. What I envision is cloud computing, where the cloud is my home PC that I can access from anywhere using my tablet. This can already be done easily by anyone with an FTP server/client setup. (Okay, this is not cloud computing per se, but is really the next best thing and has already been around forever). I think this will become more sophisticated though with a complete server application that can be left running on any PC at home. The tablet can then access the service remotely and the application launches the word processor app, for example, embeds it to a web page and sends it back to the tablet.

This is being done to some extent already with some applications. uTorrent, for example, has a web gui that can be enabled and works quite well. Many routers have a remote access option. I actually see this as becoming a standard in the major Linux distros. The option will be prepackaged and installed with the live CD. Will it catch on with the commercial OSes? No, probably not. The Googles and the Microsofts and the Apples will of course eventually start to charge for these services, probably as a monthly subscription. So they will not provide a service that makes payment unnecessary.

In the end I suppose it will make little difference to the average user, but there are businesses out there that use these services right now. It just seems like quite a leap of faith to trust a company like Google with anything business related. I think that people need to see that the idea of "cloud computing" is not a new idea at all and indeed has really been around since the popular inception of the Internet itself. Slapping a flashy new label on it shouldn't make anyone think otherwise, and it shouldn't mislead anyone into giving up the right to their own content. It is possible to have the convenience without using a third party service.

Indeed you can have your cake and eat it too.

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