The Cloud presents enormous potential for users to have access to facilities such as vast data storage and infinite computing capacity. Yet the Cloud, taken from the perspective of the average user, does have a dark side. I agree with a number of writers and the concerns that they raise about privacy and personal autonomy on the internet and the Cloud. However, I wish to voice concern over another change. From the perspective of users, the Cloud might also reduce the range of user possibilities for robust interaction with the internet/Cloud in a manner which then prevents users from participating in the internet as creators, collaborators, and sharers. The Cloud is “manageable” in a way the internet was not, and with users increasingly interacting with the internet with relatively less powerful devices than computers – smartphones, tablets and the like – this ability for Cloud service providers to control or manage users is enhanced.
We owe the vocabulary of “enclosure” to Hungarian-Canadian political economist Karl Polanyi. In his seminal work, The Great Transformation, Polanyi described the enclosure movement in England in which communally integrated and collective farming practices on common lands were suppressed by authorities of the state, forcefully and sometimes brutally, in order to privatize land resources and create the conditions for a market economy in both agriculture as well as other sectors. More recently, the term “enclosure” has been used effectively by American intellectual property scholars such as James Boyle to describe the manner in which intellectual property rules and the concurrent practices of IP rights holders (for copyright, often large corporate interests) in the age of the internet were being used to restrict access to the public domain of ideas or the information commons.
I argue that the Cloud, unless monitored and possibly directed, has the potential to go beyond undermining copyright and the public domain – Enclosure 2.0 – and to go beyond weakening privacy. This round, which I call “Enclosure 3.0”, has the potential to disempower internet users and conversely empower a very small group of gatekeepers. Put bluntly, it has the potential to relegate internet users to the status of digital sheep.
By focusing on the entities that provide Cloud services, I argue that we might take steps to encourage or, if necessary, force private entities to keep the Cloud open and accessible in the long term. I also posit the desirability of a publicly-held Cloud to achieve this same end.Let's not quibble about Polanyi (a vocabulary of 'enclosure' was in use a century before he arrived on the scene). Lametti in discussing a public cloud comments that -
So we must also be open to the possibility of the need to create a publicly-delivered Cloud to allow access to those who either cannot afford to use the privately-held public Cloud or who may not wish to participate under restrictive terms (or run the risk that they will become too restrictive). It would also give a voice to those who wish to maintain the various open software and public domain projects seen thus far on the internet. As such, a publicly-held Cloud does not have to be a massive investment in infrastructure. It is perhaps ironic, however, that the most important function of maintaining some sort of publicly-held Cloud, even if only a small one, is the positive impact that it will have on the privately-held Cloud. A Cloud that is open, inexpensive, flexible and secure is in effect a competitor in providing services on the Cloud and will hopefully encourage similar features throughout the Cloud.
For the time being, in skeletal form, I would argue that the publicly-held Cloud needs to be created, bolstered and maintained by:
- providing resources to public actors (like universities) for building the computing and storage infrastructure to create and maintain a minimal, publicly-delivered Cloud service;
- encouraging open software, open access, open knowledge and digital sharing movements to continue; and to provide Cloud services where possible;
- where necessary, encouraging or forcing universities and other agencies funded by the state to maintain a Cloud, providing the various kinds of Cloud services (SaaS, IaaS, PaaS) directly to not only their staff and students, but to the wider community; and
- perhaps using public-private partnerships (PPPs).
Admittedly, this last scenario is a more challenging option, but might nevertheless be appropriate in those contexts where states do not have the capacities in their public institutions to provide internet and Cloud services. It may also be the case – as has been the case in the varied contexts and economic histories of many countries – that the quango (or quasi-autonomous state agency, Crown corporation, etc.) is the appropriate tool for the development of this critical resource. No good idea for a hybrid solution should be rejected a priori. Different countries might find different solutions depending on their policy contexts.
Moreover, I would argue that governments need to ensure that the privately-held Cloud remains accessible by:
- mandating and implementing the highest standards of interoperability in Cloud technology, encouraging the use of open platforms and open access software, and barring attempts by individual providers to lock their systems;
- protecting users from monopolistic business practices through competition and consumer law;
- requiring privately-delivered Cloud service providers to make space available to community driven projects such as Ubuntu 1;
- mandating and implementing the highest privacy standards perhaps via a user’s bill of rights; and
- mandating the highest standard of basic user rights, again perhaps via a user’s bill of rights.
Further, as far as possible, it would be beneficial to make the privately-held Cloud conform to these last desiderata, either through positive legislation or incentives. As regards the architecture of the publicly-held Cloud, the availability of resources (human know-how, physical infrastructure and ongoing financial resources) is necessary. The key may very well be in “reminding” universities and public research centres of their public vocation, which in Europe, Canada and the US could work effectively, provided that the resources to maintain the public Cloud are indeed furnished. But the use of universities, for example, does not preclude other loci for the provision of cloud computing capacities. Collaborations among governments, say the EU and Canada, for example, might be encouraged to build facilities – built and perhaps operated jointly – in northern climates that are both cold enough to cool and are close to clean sources of electricity; resources currently necessitated by Cloud server technology.
I am aware that governments have not always been the most virtuous players on the internet. They have blocked access to the internet, and its content, and even governments generally considered to be “responsible” and “democratic” have used it for surveillance purposes. Indeed, in some places it is clear that governments ought best be feared. Hence, there is also a serious, related concern with the possibility that governments may use the potential controllability of the Cloud as an efficient means to gather information about individual users for a variety of purposes. Acknowledging this fact, I would still maintain that a collaboration between accountable governments and government institutions, on their own or with the private sector, could set a high ethical standard for internet and Cloud participation.
Thus, in the end, polycentric solutions – private, directly provided government services, and indirectly “government-encouraged” services by public, quasi-public and even private actors – will form a part of the mix in keeping the Cloud’s gates from being controlled by private Cerberus. Of course this means that governments will need to take a proactive role domestically, and cooperate at an international level. But hopefully even the most minimalist political ideology will (1) see the importance of this role for the development of its own citizenry and economy, and (2) find within the various governance options ones that it can implement according to its own philosophy.