BBC Future

Life:Connected

Why pressing ‘upload’ means losing your rights

About the author

Tom Chatfield is a British author. His most recent book, “Netymology”, explores language and technology. He blogs at tomchatfield.net and tweets at @TomChatfield

(Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

If you store your precious photos and documents online, then you may be disturbed to discover the rights you give away, says Tom Chatfield.

“The cloud” is one of my least favourite internet neologisms. It suggests something fluffy, white and weightless: a global atmosphere within which our email, social network profiles, images and shared files innocently drift. All of which sounds delightful – but the reality is that every cloud is composed of a vast infrastructure of bunker-like rooms, filled with rack upon rack of servers. And the moment you decide to upload something into this global data warehouse – be it photos of your family or precious documents – you give up many of your rights to ownership.

Last year, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak added his voice to the chorus of those alarmed by the implications of the cloud. “I think it’s going to be horrendous. I think there are going to be horrible problems in the next five years,” he opined on a trip to Washington. “With the cloud, you don’t own anything. You already signed it away… the more we transfer everything onto the web, onto the cloud, the less we’re going to have control over it.”

Such warnings have a distinguished pedigree – and an equally impressive history of being ignored. Back in 2008, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, Richard Stallman, called the adoption of cloud-based systems “worse than stupidity… a marketing hype campaign.” So why is the world quite so willing to leap into the arms of these services if they are so dangerous? And is there anything you can do?

The overwhelming answer to the first of these questions is convenience: both for users and for companies. Having email, images, files, profiles, information and so on available wherever you go is a massive boon – and one that many users don’t associate with the idea of clouds in the first place. If you’re using any online email service, from Gmail to Outlook or Yahoo, your data is being held on the servers of the company providing that service.

Data for sale

If you’re reading a book on a Kindle, uploading any image or comment to any site you’ve signed into, tweeting or “liking” or sharing or voting or rating, you too are floating in the cloud. You just don’t know it – and that suits the people running these services just fine. The leveraging and selling of all this precious data provides the bulk of revenues for everyone from Facebook to Google.

Yet the bargain you strike by signing up to many services can easily be broken. Consider the millions of legitimate users affected when file-sharing site Megaupload was shut down by the US government in 2012 – at which point all the information in its cloud, whether pirated or not, instantly vanished from the internet. Or, this year, the Canadian company Kobo’s sudden decision to remove all self-published books from its e-books service, something to which a typical self-published author’s reaction was: “I can’t believe they have the right to do this.”

Rights – and content creators’ lack of them – lie at the heart of cloud storage’s worst dangers, something connected in turn to the underlying nature of cloud storage. In the words of Douglas Heaven, writing in New Scientist, “a digital file exists as a state of matter… rather than matter itself.” Your information is not a piece of property in any legal sense. It’s merely the electrical state of a disk owned by somebody else; or, more likely, the state of a large number of different disks scattered across the world, each containing part or all of what may be numerous copies of your information, backed up and accessed and reproduced as necessary to ensure server-side efficiency.

The moment you hit upload, you’ve given away almost every right you might expect to possess over what’s “yours”. Instead, the entitlements and obligations you’re left with will be spelled out in the terms of an almost-certainly-unread licensing agreement with the company who own a service – and who, in most cases, will award themselves the ability to do pretty much anything legal they see fit with your material.

Depending on the country that a company’s servers are located in, moreover, a government will also reserve certain privileges regarding your information: looking inside your old emails without a warrant, perhaps, in the case of US; or locking you up for insulting the monarch in Thailand.

Outside the cloud

So is there an alternative to life in the cloud? Julian Ranger, chairman and founder of the young tech company SocialSafe, believes there could be. SocialSafe is a company founded on the belief that the dire warnings about cloud technologies really are true. In Ranger’s words, “lack of privacy through inadvertent self-harm (over-sharing) and through third-party data aggregation will cause greater and greater harm over the years as people cannot leave their past behind them” – and that’s before you get onto data loss, theft, fraud, and the wholesale shutting down of online services.

The service SocialSafe currently offers is the automatic copying of all your cloud content to your own computer – to be held by you no matter what happens online, and browsed or analysed at your own convenience. The service covers the gamut of social media, from Twitter to Facebook via Instagram and LinkedIn. But by the end of next year, it plans to cover categories of data ranging from purchase histories and utility bills to financial and health data – and, Ranger hopes, towards an eventual model where you yourself own your personal data library, and can “decide to make it available in parts you decide, for purposes you agree with.”

Meanwhile, legal thinking on digital rights is slowly catching up with the absurdity of their being almost no current recourse for loss, deletion or the whims of a service provider; but its pace is massively exceeded by the rate at which material is flowing online, into the hands of businesses whose profitability rests on owning and exploiting everything you give them.

Companies like SocialSafe are intriguing, in this context, thanks to their insistence that precisely the opposite should be true: personal data should be something you control, on a computer that’s in your possession – and companies wishing to offer their services should come to you seeking access.

Put like this, it seems astonishing that such privacy isn’t our present default; or that more users aren’t campaigning for the right to make it so. But while even fools are wise after the event, it can be extraordinarily difficult to be wise in advance. After all, who could object to a fluffy, drifting cloud?

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