The Implications of “No Local Storage” Computing

At http://rob.pike.usesthis.com/, Rob Pike talks about how computing should be everywhere, part of the infrastructure. He says storage “should be someone else’s problem, one I’m happy to pay to have them solve”.

But the problem is, when you abstract away a problem like that, it will come around and bite you later. The people using Megaupload found that out: They paid Megaupload to handle their storage for them. Then the US Department of Justice seized the entire domain, and innocent users who were storing their own data on Megaupload’s servers had to sue to try — so far, unsuccessfully — to get their own data back.

Somehow, I doubt that’s the kind of experience Mr. Pike is encouraging.

Services like iCloud and the Google suite of cloud products are pretty close to what Mr. Pike describes. But as Slate’s Tienlon Ho describes, the stuff you put on someone else’s servers can evaporate at any moment — like a cloud dissipating on a sunny day. Ms. Ho even claims that In the same notice informing me that it had disabled my account, Google told me for the first time that it reserves the right to terminate your account at any time, for any reason, with or without notice. Okay, perhaps they hadn’t used that exact phrasing before. But in her very next sentence, Ms. Ho links to Google’s Terms of Service, which do include lines like “[Google] may add or remove functionalities or features, and we may suspend or stop a Service altogether” and “You can stop using our Services at any time, although we’ll be sorry to see you go. Google may also stop providing Services to you, or add or create new limits to our Services at any time. (emphasis added)”

But who reads Terms of Service pages that closely? Honestly, even if I was surprised by Ms. Ho’s initial ignorance about the way Google (like any cloud storage company) “reserves the right to take away or vaporize our data for any reason”, it’s still a good illustration of the way an average user sees things. You may be storing your stuff on Google’s servers (or Apple’s, or Dropbox’s, or…), but it’s still your stuff. They should have to give it back to you, whenever you want it!

To get back to Mr. Pike’s dream: He doesn’t seem to be looking at the “what happens when someone takes it away” situation. Then again, that’s somewhat covered by his later analogy with the phone system: “Twenty years ago, you expected a phone to be provided everywhere you went, and that phone worked the same everywhere…. You didn’t carry a phone around with you; phones were part of the infrastructure.… [Similarly, the] world should provide me my computing environment and maintain it for me and make it available everywhere. (emphasis added)”

If it’s part of the infrastructure, then maybe — like the phone system — not only broadband access but even cloud storage should be considered a public utility, and regulated as such, with access guaranteed. But if that’s what Mr. Pike is assuming, then that assumption should be made very explicit. The alternative is a world where you don’t actually own any of your own data.

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