As more and more computing moves off our PCs and into “the Cloud,” Internet users are gaining access to a wealth of new software-based services that can exploit vast computing capacity and memory storage. That’s wonderful. But what about our freedom to create and share things as we wish, free from corporate or government surveillance or over-reaching copyright enforcement? The real danger of the Cloud is its potential to limit how we may create and share what we want, on our terms.
There are already signs that large corporations like Google, Facebook, Twitter and all the rest will quietly warp the design architecture of the Internet to serve their business interests first. A terrific overview of the troubling issues raised by the Cloud can be found in the essay, “The Cloud: Boundless Digital Potential or Enclosure 3.0,” by David Lametti, a law professor at McGill University, and published by the Virginia Journal of Law & Technology. An earlier version is available at the SSRN website.
Lametti states his thesis simply: “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.”
The Internet to date has been empowering to date precisely because it decentralizes power and makes sharing so practical and efficient. By comparison, the centralized institutions of the “real world” are proving to be less informed, less responsive and more expensive than network-based institutions. Lametti argues that “the Cloud has the potential to alter fundamentally this open landscape, allowing for the possibility of control that might make the efforts of Enclosure 2.0 pale in comparison.”
The Cloud is attractive because it can provide huge efficiency gains by centralizing computing applications that were previously run on our personal, general-purpose computers. The Cloud can move email, word-processing, tax data and countless other programs on to more flexible, large-scale servers that can be accessed by smartphones, tablets, laptops and remote sensors. These “thin clients” don’t have to have the computing and storage capacities of our desktop computers.
This means that while we gain greater versatility in mobile computing, we lose the potential ability to control the design and features of our software. Users don't really have the capacity to modify or hack cloud systems except as allowed by the service provider.
This puts the achievements of free software at risk because the Cloud invites new forms of vertical, hierarchical and proprietary control over computing. It becomes easier for service providers to lock us into a dependency on their systems and exploit that lock-in for private commercial gain. Think how Facebook, Dropbox and Instagram hold so much of our digital lives. These are "free" spaces for sharing, but they are also "enclosure traps" waiting to snap shut.
Lametti calls the architecture of the Cloud “a paradigm shift in terms of control,” or the “third enclosure movement.” (The first one was the English enclosure movement, the second one was the digital/copyright enclosures described by law professor James Boyle in a famous essay called the “second enclosure movement.”) He continues:
“This is the uniquely new fear: that we lose the means to shape and adapt the technology to create both new technologies and new art forms, even where (especially where) the practice might be subversive, or constitute ‘piracy.’” Put bluntly, we lose the ability to ethically participate, download, share, program, create, and, at times, hack. We become addicted to the ‘stream’ until what we are being fed in ultimately turned off, or altered…..[T]he architecture of the Cloud allows for a possible rejection of the fundamental ‘end-to-end’ principle [of the open Internet], by allowing for increased control, vertical integration and potentially successful closed business models.”
Lametti argues that a “publicly delivered Cloud” may be needed to ensure the kinds of open access and freedom that a "privately held Cloud" may not allow. He suggests that universities and governments should offer Cloud services to help prevent proprietary lock-ins. Another idea, not mentioned by Lametti but proposed by free software champion Eben Moglen, is the development of a “Freedom Box,” a small, cheap and simple computer that can provide a platform for distributed applications via one’s home.
It is still too soon to tell if the Cloud will actually constrict our Internet freedoms, but it is always a good idea to be vigilant about the very realistic dangers. Lametti's essay provides a clear overview.