A new survey by the Pew Internet and American Life project, released Friday morning at Google's Washington, DC headquarters, finds cloud computing applications taking off among Internet users. But respondents also told pollsters that they have profound concerns about ways their personal data might be used—among them, the kind of ad-targeting practiced by… Google.
As Internet users increasingly find themselves using multiple (potentially incompatible) networked devices to get online from a variety of locations, it should come as little surprise that large numbers of them are availing themselves of "cloud" services that offload computing or data storage functions to someone else's server, allowing e-mail, photos, or documents to be accessed anywhere. More than half of Internet users have used Web-based e-mail services, which study author John Horrigan called the "starter drug" of cloud computing, while just over a third have stored personal photos on sites like Flickr or Photobucket. Cloud apps like Google Documents and Adobe Photoshop Express were third most popular, with 29 percent of respondents saying they'd used one, while fewer than 10 percent had used Web-based services to store personal videos or back up their hard drives. All told, 69 percent of users had used at least one form of cloud computing; 40 percent had used two or more. For users under 30, those numbers jumped to 87 percent and 59 percent respectively.
Perhaps more surprising is that 68 percent of respondents who said they'd used cloud services declared that they would be "very" concerned, and another 19 percent at least "somewhat" concerned, if their personal data were analyzed to provide targeted advertising. This, of course, is precisely what many Web mail services, such as Google's own Gmail, do—which implies that at least some of those who profess to be "very" concerned about the practice are probably nevertheless subjecting themselves to it. Practices like the selling of files to third parties and the use of personal photos or other data in marketing campaigns were almost universally condemned, while only 49 percent of cloud app users said they would be "very" concerned if an online service turned over private files at the request of a law enforcement agency.
Author Horrigan was joined at Google's DC offices by a panel of commentators who highlighted some of the policy challenges raised by the growing popularity of cloud computing services. Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology pointed out thatcourts have traditionally refused to recognize any Fourth Amendment privacy interest in information turned over to third-party institutions, such as banks. Schwartz warned that as "cloud" storage of personal data and documents becomes more prevalent, this formal distinction would dilute privacy protections unless courts took steps to "bring the Fourth Amendment into the 21st century." He also suggested that, in addition to site-specific privacy controls, cloud providers work to implement "meta-controls" that woul allow users to set uniform privacy preferences for all their data, across a range of sites.
Michael Nelson, formerly director of technology policy at the FCC, compared cloud computing in 2008 to the Web in 1993, predicting that it the cloud model would come to be regarded as "important as the Web was 15 years ago." But he called public policy the "rate limiting step" in technological progress, and warned of the need to "futureproof" policy. Nelson, who before his stint at the FCC advised Al Gore on telecom infrastructure and e-commerce issues at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, declared himself a "cyberlibertarian Democrat" who had learned that "government has an almost unlimited capacity to screw things up when they can't see the future—which none of us can." The best policy, he suggested, is therefore for government to lead by example: Nelson cited the decision to create a White House Web site linking to the sites of other agencies—whether they had one ready or not—as among the most important policy choices made during his time in the Clinton administration.
One of those myriad ways government might screw things up, suggested Salesforce.com public policy VP Daniel Burton, would be to yield to protectionist impulses by imposing data export restrictions. Domestic industry, he suggested, might be tempted to seek limits on the transfer of information overseas—perhaps in the guise of consumer protection or privacy regulation—which would function as a non-tarriff trade barrier.
Horrigan, for his part, observed that the viability of the cloud model going forward would depend in significant part on its adaptability to mobile computing. That, in turn, would depend on a spectrum policy designed to enable ubiquitous wireless broadband connectivity—something lawmakers appear to have deemed less important than ensuring we can all watch HD reruns of House on broadcast television.Posted on