We need public clouds to complement private clouds

Excerpted from Charles Leadbeater:

“The cloud capitalists – Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon – present themselves as the next step of the networked world. Cloud computing allows our data to be stored remotely so it is always there to be accessed from any device we like. For consumers juggling a mass of data on an array of devices, this offers a benign mix of reliability and flexibility. Business should benefit too. The smallest start-up may be able to create an IT infrastructure from sales to manufacture in a few clicks. So what’s not to like?

… The big issues will be about ownership and control, for example who owns the particles in the cloud: witness the furore over whether Facebook owns pictures posted by its members. More worrying, commercial providers of cloud services will have strong incentives to manage their users to maximise revenues and to discourage them from roaming from one cloud to another. You may well be confined to your Apple zone and discouraged from straying. The open web encourages people to share, mix and match software and content. The cloud will be more controlled, like Apple’s app store.

Google’s cloud of millions of digital books, orphaned works left cruelly neglected by the holders of their copyright, offers a cornucopia of content. Yet Google is acquiring immense power over the future of publishing, and our culture.

… Cloud services will always be looking over our shoulder, analysing our habits, nudging us in one direction or another. The intimacy will get us more personalised services. But we will find ourselves increasingly dependent on services that will shape our behaviour: think of Facebook’s clumsy definition and management of social relationships writ large.

The interests of consumers and cloud capitalists will not always be as one. While almost all our culture will become digital and more of it will be available to more people than ever before, the cloud capitalists will have more pervasive power than even the likes of Rupert Murdoch.

To avoid that trap we need the digital equivalent of the classification of cloud types created by Luke Howard, an amateur meteorologist, in 1803. His scheme of cirrus, stratus and cumulus created 52 main varieties of clouds. We should seek diversity in the kinds of digital clouds we have, public and private, large and small, fleeting and permanent. The World Digital Library, which is being created by a group of public libraries, is a prime example of a global public cloud. Ushahidi, a service created on the back of Kenya’s election violence in 2007, is creating a kind of human rights cloud. A new generation of civic entrepreneurs, such as Tom Steinberg at MySociety, are using open data from government to create shared services where citizens can hold politicians to account. Media regulators should make sure the cloud capitalists do not throttle competition and ensnare consumers.

Imagine for a moment a sky in which there was only stratocumulus as far as the eye could see. The world would be a duller place – so will a future in which the only choice we have is between Appbook and Facegoogle. “