These “Clouds” Have a Dark Lining

Do you like dealing with your cable company or your bank? How would you like to resolve an account issue with them if they had cut off access to all your documents, email, contacts, pictures, links, and all else digital in your life?

It is important to recognize that the term “Cloud” is a pernicious misnomer. This isn’t Napster or Bit Torrent or a DHT. As both legally and technically implemented today, your vital data is not stored in the ether, owned and accessible only to you. It is simply stored on a huge corporation’s servers, accessible and controllable by them for any purpose and disclosure whatsoever, and with no protections for continued access by you. Ah, but Google are “good guys”, right? Well, any Google employee will tell you that the cult is not one of actions and good works of the form “do no evil”, but rather a self-ruling predestined “don’t BE evil.”

Anyway, we don’t have to imagine or guess what will happen. It has already has. Read the tale of Thomas Monopoly. There are bound to be many more concerning aspects of the still-experimental g+, such as this one. Indeed, my G+ invitation came through the artist and storyteller known as Cheeseburger Brown. He has now had to shut down his g+ account for fear of running afoul of Google’s anti-pseudonymity policy. Even as Google decides to make his commercial and artistic identity a social unperson, the man who illustrated the modern anticorporatist 1984 cannot risk loosing his gmail or blogger access. When I tried to comment on the corpse of his g+ identity, I am told only that “There was a problem updating your comment.” The point is not the degree to which these or comparable Facebook incidents are defensible or temporary, but rather that the Monopoly affair is not an isolated incident.

As a child I used to wonder how whole populations in history could collectively engage in self-ruination. Through the work of experimental economists such as Vernon Smith, we now know that people do indeed create market bubbles and bubbles of perception around ideas that they know to not be true, but which they’d like to get away with being temporarily true. Whether wanton violence during war or rapacious speculation in a housing bubble, people will abandon the rules they have always lived by as long as they believe that many others are now doing so as well. (I do not think we yet understand which people will abandon which beliefs under which circumstances.)

With this in mind, I have no doubt that people in this second part of the Information Age will happily give up their most important information to corporations that offer no protection for it whatsoever.

I do not think that the US government is currently inclined to help, nor the US voter inclined to demand protection for individuals. Read the tale of The United States v. Aaron Swartz. Among the principles we have collectively abandoned recently, is the dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Hundreds of years ago, we designed our system of government with each limited-power group counterbalancing each other, and simultaneously modeled our economic philosophy the same way. But now we have radically allowed no limitation on the power, control, “speech”, access or operations of the largest corporations. We ignore the evidence of the effects of that we see today on our environment, economy, and government process. What we will soon have, then, is internationals answerable to no one, with access to everything.

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5 Comments

  1. Dear Stearns,

    For a while now it’s been evident that the Internet is making it increasingly difficult to operate under an obfuscated identity, and that at some point in the near future the burden of circumventing will outweigh the benefit — at least for me, whose pseudonymity is just a way to keep day-job and night-job worlds separate.

    My life and security don’t pivot on my pseudonymity, the way it might for some others (activists and whistleblowers come to mind), but it allows for me a certain unfettered expressiveness I couldn’t otherwise enjoy.

    However, as you point out, Google has my blog and my mail. There is no real customer support should anything go awry. Appeals processes are reportedly bureaucratic, AI-intensive, slow and totally opaque. Can I risk entering into negotiations with such a beast?

    On another front, Apple is asking me to let them take care of my music and movies collections. They want to be the steward of my family photos, too. What would happen if I somehow pissed them off and lost all that?

    I don’t trust them enough to make that relationship work.

    At least citizens have rights. Customers don’t, at least not ones it is economic to attempt to enforce against the world’s richest multinational non-corporeal persons. Why would I enter into that bargain with the devil?

    Am I getting old? Suddenly the future scares and confuses me. I just wanted to write some stories without alerting my boss every time I made an offering to the world…why is this sort of freedom being phased out? To control rude trolls on messageboards? To simplify the legwork for Korean mob-justice concerns?

    I think an important part of online culture is being strangled. And most of us are selling them the rope to do it with.

  2. Gary says:

    This is why I’ve maintained my own domains since the late 90’s. My email, my sites, all of it is under my control. Even that is no guarantee, however, since you still depend on a service provider, who may or may not shut down your site on a whim when someone accuses you of intellectual property theft, or (as has been the case of Wetmachine a few times) knocked off the air due to some nebulously-defined “using too many resources.” I’m going to work on moving us over to a virtual server, so we’ll have less issues with the resources, at least. But still… I don’t have physical hands on the machine.

    I do run a home server for other things… online data acess, mainly. I can stream my music when I want to. Share files how I want. I still use Google apps, DropBox, and the rest… but never for anything so important that I couldn’t live without it, and always with local backups.

    I’ve often thought it would be a great idea to set up a Linux distribution that out of the box gives people tools that they rely on cloud providers for… pre-configured email, document-sharing, blogging, and so forth. Run it off a home server, use your own hardware. Sure, your ISP could pull your plug (especially under insidious “three strikes” rules or maybe six strikes where an accusation or wrongdoing carries the weight of a conviction in the eyes of the ISP). But if they do, you still have your files, on your server.

    Hmm… or maybe it’s time for cloud applications that are distributed and run on a pool of individual’s servers… sort of like BitTorrent or TOR. Use good encryption and security, and everyone’s data should still be able to remain private while distributed far and wide.

  3. Stearns says:

    Cheeseburger, I’m not sure why we don’t have that freedom. Moreover, I’m not sure if we ever really did. Maybe we only thought we did for a while during some sort of Internet Spring. It is clear why companies want to operate cloud services, and why users want to pretend that it will work well (enough) for them. See Paul Graham’s classic from 2001: http://www.paulgraham.com/road.html. I imagine, but do not know for sure, that while there are drivers for cloud, there might not be strong drivers for freedom. It just doesn’t pay. Gary’s devotion is too much for most folks. In addition, in principle, there is a potential business driver against freedom and anonymity: Google would like to match what you say with what you buy. I have no idea how huge it would be (for Google, not you) to connect your writings with your credit card purchases, and similarly with your readers.

    Gary, yes. In between Curl and Croquet, around 2002/3, I hatched a framework that used anonymous DHTs to split up all one’s data and store bits of it on everyone else’s computer. At the time, I wasn’t convinced that there was an app that people would leave running often enough to play host for it, or that would garner the 10s or 100s of thousands of users necessary to make it reliable. Now I can think of a few candidates.

  4. Dear Gary,

    My slide into cloud-reliance, such as it is, was slow but inexorable. In the final years of the twentieth century my relationship to the Internet was through my own home server — my own e-mail server with web access, my own webserver, tools SSHable from anywhere, and so on and so forth.

    Then I got married and had children and bought an antique house and got a job in the city, and (comparatively) suddenly I just couldn’t spare the time anymore to keep ahead of the exploit attempts against my box, the ever-evolving incompatibility landscape, and the self-education required by the advance of software.

    Now here I am with one foot in either camp. I’ve given up entirely on hosting my own email and instead rely on Gmail and a half-borked badly written shell script which sometimes makes vendor-agnostic offline archives; I have a virtual server set up somewhere in the world containing 400 pages of web content whose authoring software was long ago EOL’d; I keep moving my family pictures from one set of decaying DVDs to another, crossing my fingers every time. It’s all less than ideal.

    The less time I have to invest, the more helpless to the mass-produced and cloud-offered solutions I become.

  5. Stearns said, in part.

    I’m not sure why we don’t have that freedom. Moreover, I’m not sure if we ever really did. Maybe we only thought we did for a while during some sort of Internet Spring…

    I think we did. There really was a time when nobody knew you were a dog — or, at least, the expertise to suss out the truth was held by a very small cadre of individuals. At that time you really could become a famous Usenet author of erotic literature and not have it come back to bite your real self in the bum, if you took the basic steps to separate your writing identity from your billing paying one.

    I think, as I think you are suggesting, that the end of the semi-anonymous Internet is meaningfully connected with the rise of the monetized Internet. I’m not railing against that: infrastructure expansion has to be funded, bandwidth has to be paid for.

    But by making each net-citizen exist as a credit card number before all else — a movement I think iOS is spearheading — we lose something precious, too. I know that makes me sound like a hippie, but it’s true: consider how the history of literature would differ without the role of pseudonymity for writers and commentators.

    Not that I’m against transparency…I just like it when it goes both ways.

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