The Age of the Cloud, or the Internet of Serfs
Apple's announcement today of iCloud is a milestone in the progress of cloud computing into the mainstream. Cloud computing has been around for some time now, but this is the first time that it has become a fundament of a major operating system (Mac OS X/iOS5).
The interesting point in this for me is the statement by Steve Jobs that he sees iCloud as replacing the file system. This is a crucial nuance. Many proponents of cloud computing have suggested that all services should come out of the cloud, implying the end of client-side computing (desktop- or device-based applications etc.) as we know it.
Is it naive to conclude that the end user wants device-based applications? I think Apple have twigged this and this is the real point behind the iCloud: replacing the filesystem and no more.
So what does this mean for end-users? All their data is in one place, is nicely backed-up and is accessible from any device anywhere in the world as long as an Internet connection is available. Sounds good. Or does it?
I live and work in Switzerland. I like it here, I understand the laws of the land and try to abide by them. If I go other countries, I am aware that I am somewhere with different laws and try to behave correctly there as well.
What happens, however, if I decide to use a service in the cloud, be it the iCloud filesystem or Twitter or Facebook? All of my data on iCloud is suddenly exported to an alien jurisdiction. What happens if I have data there which conforms to Swiss law but not to US law? I am not am American citizen. Would an American court say "ho, hum, let's forget it then"?
What if my worst enemy here in Switzerland stores something on iCloud which is illegal in Switzerland but conforms to American law? Would an American court support a case brought in a Swiss court? Who's got the bigger gunboats?
Why should someone who lives in Switzerland (and may never even go to America) be subject(ed) in any way to American law?
The same questions apply to Facebook (cf. dubious security and privacy standards) and Twitter (consider the recent Giggs affair in England – no pun intended). In the absence of any recognised form of Internet law, people are signing up for services and selling their souls to the American legal system.
This seems fundamentally wrong to me. In democratic systems, the people choose the legislators; legislators frame the laws; and the legal system applies the laws to the people. The intrusion of a foreign legal system into this model invalidates the model's democratic legitimacy. People end up subject to laws they never had a chance to influence. So the stage of the Internet after the "Internet of Things" becomes the "Internet of Serfs": we're back in the Middle Ages, or colonialism – take your pick.
I'm not against the cloud, or iCloud or Twitter. And although I'm not a great fan of Facebook, I'll grudgingly grant it its success. If someone has a good business idea which appeals to people, then that's fine by me. It's the consequences down the line that cause me serious concern.
So what solutions are there?
McDonalds is a franchise. Local companies, subject to the laws of the land in which they operate, effectively rent the McDonalds concept and operate it locally. This is a sort of business subsidiarity which – it seems to me – would work well for Apple, Facebook, Twitter and co. It would also make it easier for the mother company to understand what was happening in the outlying reaches of their empires, because local companies would be providing feedback.
The major task for the franchise holder would be the provision of data storage in the country in which it operates. This makes sense for performance reasons, as well as ensuring that the user's data is not exported to an alien jurisdiction.
And it would mean that people could work with the franchise holder under the terms and the laws of their own country instead of chancing their luck under Californian law. Worth a try in my view – any politicians listening?