The Cloud Problem

When people started referring to the internet as the cloud, it was more confusing than helpful.  Well, it helped some tech companies market themselves by creating a kind of insiders’ cachet of people who knew what the cloud was, but it created the delusion that the cloud was something different than the world wide web, the internet.

The term “the cloud” is a gimmicky and confusing way of describing the idea of having access to resources elsewhere on the internet via your device (PC, phone, tablet etc).  A decade ago it was already common for people to download files from websites – that was using the cloud.  People working in companies with internal networks could login to their office server from home in order to access their files – that was using the cloud.

As the “cloud” terminology started to be hyped by tech companies services like file sharing and storage began to be marketed with clever names and fancy adverts.  There was no new special cloudish technology but new packaging and marketing of certain capabilities of the web.  Well that’s OK if it helps people use the internet more easily.

But the dynamic has changed.  The terminology of the cloud has become more familiar, but most people still don’t understand that it is not something new and different on the web.   Tech companies continue to hype “the cloud” and people can still use the internet more easily because access is facilitated by intermediaries. But the cloud has literally become The Cloud.

Well not quite The Cloud, but there are definitely only a handful of Clouds in the sky and that’s unnatural and dangerous.   A handful of organisations own most of the relevant data on the internet:  Google (everyone with a smart phone or using their search engine is hooked in), Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Apple.

In nature clouds come and go.  There are many of them of different shapes and size.  They all occupy the same space and deliver similar effects.  That was what the internet used to be like.  Now there are a handful of really huge clouds, all the others are insignificant and likely to either get absorbed by one of the big ones or wither.  It’s a cloud oligopoly (like a monopoly for everyone else, but more difficult to get rid of).

These five big clouds are dangerous because they can evaporate or turn black.  When a few regular sized clouds change, it’s barely noticed.  When the big cloud upon which you rely for everything takes control of your life, that’s not good.  It’s not good for millions of users.  So it’s not good for society.

The obvious solution is for regulators to do their job and regulate the monopolistic companies, but that’s not happening.  So the best you can do is say “No”.  Try to use services from organisations other than the big ones and if you have to (like using a smart phone), do what you can to limit the amount of data you send to the cloud owner.

Even that is increasingly difficult as users are forced to use software (“apps”) which track usage and behaviour, register for access etc etc.  It is frustrating to see how Google and Microsoft track my use, automatically install programmes etc because I have enough awareness to know what’s happening and slow it down, but most users are just blindly clicking “OK”, “Accept”, “Install”.

If you work in a business with IT resources encourage them to provide services in house and avoid the big names.  Anything you can do to level the playing field makes it safer for everyone.

If you work in a small enterprise ask your providers to work in Linux. (Linux runs most webservers because it’s safe and reliable.  It’s also the basis for Android before Google locked it up.  We use OpenSuse on the desktop.  Try DistroWatch for reviews.)  That will put pressure on them to diversify their spending from Google and Microsoft to the safer, cheaper, more stable world of open-source-software.

Watch out for The Cloud lest it consume us all.


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