(L-R) John Horrigan, Dan Burton, Mike Nelson, Ari Schwartz
WASHINGTON — Most Internet users know what Webmail is. Many are familiar
with YouTube, or at least the concept of watching videos online. But how
many of them understand that they those applications live in the clouds?
A new study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that
the 69 percent of Internet users who tap into cloud-based applications
generally don’t have much of an understanding of how those applications are
actually provided to them.
They love the convenience and flexibility of
being able to access the same content from any computer, but they have
reservations about how their data is being used.
“The tradeoffs that people engage in worry them, and sometimes can be
very subtle,” said John Horrigan, associate director of the Pew Internet
Project and author of the report. “People use it more than they understand
Horrigan presented Pew’s latest research at a policy talk here at
Google’s Washington D.C. headquarters. The presenters agreed that, outside of tech
circles, the term “cloud computing” is largely unknown. But that’s likely to
change as lawmakers and regulators begin to ponder the implications that a
new model of computing could have on privacy, security and a host of other
areas in which government is taking an increasing interest.
“I think cloud computing is the hot topic over the next year in
Washington,” said Dan Burton, senior vice president of global public policy
for Saleforce.com (NYSE: CRM), one of the companies at the forefront of the
Much of the discussion of cloud computing lately has surrounded a model
like Amazon’s Web Services business, where small companies pay a monthly fee
for computing power and storage capacity from Amazon’s datacenters.
By Pew’s definition, that model is only one form of cloud computing, and is more
precisely termed “utility computing,” where computing power is purchased
from a centralized provider, like gas or
Pew defines cloud computing as a broad architecture where data is
remotely stored and accessible to anyone who can tap into the grid. Looking
at it in historical terms, the presenters described the cloud model as the
next major computing paradigm, succeeding the client-server model, which had
in turn largely supplanted the mainframe. But these are still early days.
“Today we are with the cloud about where we were in 1993 with the Web,”
said Mike Nelson, visiting professor of communication, culture and
technology at Georgetown University. “The basic technology is there, the
standards are being worked out, we have a vague idea of how important it is;
we don’t really have any clue as to how it will be used.
“But those of us who are following this closely know that it is going to
change almost everything we do with computing,” he added.
One of those changes involves the developer community, where large
companies provide a platform and a hosted environment for Web applications.
Through its Web Services division, Amazon provides such a developer
platform, as does Google’s with its App
Engine, and Salesforce with Force.com.
On the social side, Facebook has staked its own place in the cloud with its
platform, where developers around the world have created hugely popular
applications such as Scrabulous and iLike.
For its purposes, the Pew study only looked at six of the common
computing activities where data resides in the cloud: Webmail, storing
photos, online applications such as Google Docs, storing videos, paying a
fee to store files online and backing up a hard drive online.
But even within the consumer realm, that only scratches the surface —
Pew did not ask about other cloud-based applications such as social
networking, where people create profiles that are stored at remote
datacenters, or social bookmarking sites such as Delicious.
The research revealed the same fundamental conflict that can be found in
the debate over privacy and online advertising: people love free services
but express concern when asked about how companies are using their data.
Of the respondents who said they use at least one of the six
cloud-computing activities included in the survey, 68 percent said they
would be very concerned if companies analyzed the contents of their data for
the purposes of targeting advertisements.
Eighty percent said would be concerned to see their photos or other
content show up in a marketing campaign, and 90 percent said they would be
unnerved if a company sold the contents of their files.
“Consumers expect that their information will be treated the same way in
the cloud as it would be if it were stored on their home computer,” said Ari
Schwartz, COO and vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology.
“That’s a pretty tall order.”
Or, as Horrigan put it, his research found that the consumer’s message to
the vendor would be something like: “Let’s keep the data between us.”