Cloud Computing, Freedom and the ISP

Recently, GNU founder Richard Stallman warned that Cloud Computing is a trap that users and industry should avoid. Believing that the new technology is simply industry’s way of monopolizing software and user data, Stallman advised that users should keep services and information in their own domain rather than relinquishing control to outside parties. Because of this, Stallman has received some flak from people in and around the IT world, but it seems that these detractors may not fully understand his charge or the fundamental issue.

For instance, some commentators seem to be misunderstanding what the word ‘freedom’ actually means. Richard Giles, the CEO of Recommendation Ventures, is a prime example. He seems to believe that freedom is solely determined by itinerancy and ease of use.

I can’t agree with [Richard Stallman’s] blanket statement … For example, the article picked on Gmail. I can move my data in and out of Gmail freely, and with my own domain I can move my email to another service whenever I want. That sounds fairly free to me.

In fact cloud computing has the potential to make our data even more “free.” For instance, rather than store multiple copies of my data on local machines, as Stallman suggests, I can store my data in the “cloud” and take it with me on multiple devices.

There are a few people in the old-guard that have exhausted their used-by-date I guess.

Ignoring the Ad Hominem abusive at the end of Giles’ comment, it is true that an increased ability to travel is positively correlated to freedom, but that is not the only criterion for measuring freedom. Freedom is also determined by one’s susceptibility to ‘queries ‘ – the lower the amount of queries, the higher one’s freedom. For example, if a woman were to deposit a letter in her bank’s safety deposit box and that letter was subsequently read by authorities of the bank, we could say that her freedom had been diminished. Similarly, if a man were to leave home and was stopped a dozen times by authorities on route to work, we could say that the man in question has a lower degree of freedom as compared to neighbors who are never interrupted during their commutes.

These examples have a direct relation not only to the question of Gmail and other web based applications (Richard Stallman’s charge), but to the question of Cloud Computing and Internet architecture in general (the fundamental question). Although we are told our data is safe in the hands of Gmail (similar to our fictional woman depositing her letter at the bank) and we hope that all our electronic transmissions will not be intercepted on their way to their final destination (similar to our fictional man trying to get to work), this may not be the case.

Firstly, who is to say our data is safe in the hands of any web based application provider? Once our data is deposited in their servers, we have no idea whether they are acting decorously or maliciously. Data could be stolen, sold, or manhandled by the government. And in addition to trusting the sanctity of our stored data, we have no authority to upgrade, downgrade or modify the application we are using.

Secondly, who is to say our data transmissions will be safe in a cloud computing architecture or are currently safe in today’s traditional internet architecture? Although Stallman’s charge is against the diminished freedom of users in future Cloud Computing architectures, the bottom line is that the Achilles heel of computing security and freedom from queries ultimately rests in the ISP – regardless of the Internet’s architecture. This should be painfully obvious in light of Mark Klien’s revelations, and the “Retroactive Immunity” of the telecommunication industry.

2 thoughts on “Cloud Computing, Freedom and the ISP

  1. Hi Jacques

    Actually, I don’t just think that “freedom” is about “itinerancy and ease of use.” I actually think that “freedom” is a very personal decision. Hence why I suggested that EVERYONE ask a simple question: what rights do I have if I use it?

    For example, some people aren’t as adverse to some forms of “queries.” I for one don’t really mind the fact that Google could read my email. Others however may not like the idea at all, and so Gmail isn’t for them.

    I also suggested that this question should be asked no matter what form of software is used: localized or cloud. The issues are the same, no matter where the data is stored. A spouse can still potentially sneak a read at localized email, and that may also be important for some to avoid.

    So each individual should make up their own mind. Personally, I’m willing to take a risk with some of my freedoms, for the sake of acquiring some others like portability (which I only use as an example, not the only type of freedom).

    Hope that clarifies my thoughts a little.

    As for my Ad Hominem Abusive. It was a joke. Sorry, we Aussies have a strange form of humor sometimes.


  2. Hey Richard,

    I completely agree with that. Pragmatically, the choices between the ease of use of a web service and the probability of privacy are a trade-off. A trade-off that ultimately rests in the hands of the user.

    The one thing that I have to point out though is that while a sneaky spouse theoretically could gleam info on their partner’s computer, the partner is at the helm when it comes to protecting their data. The alternative (clouds, SaaS, etc.) means relinquishing command of the helm, regardless of the benign or malicious outcome.

    Take care,


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