Trapped in heaven

Warning – I’ve written this post in one fell swoop, and I am going to click the publish button within the next minute. I’ll be editing out the rough patches in the next few days. The topic of this post, however, is something I feel very passionate about, and I needed to get it published ASAP, even if it only gets one reader. I apologize for any odd sentences, typo’s and other types of inconsistencies that a decent edit would’ve fixed. Leave a comment, and I’ll fix them as soon as I can.

It’s been the case, for the last couple of years, that “the cloud” has surpassed the status of buzzword, and made its way into the daily vocabulary of the common man. It’s also somewhat of an accepted fact that, within the next couple of years, a lot of data and work is going to move towards the cloud. Of course, there are major benefits to working in the cloud.
Cloud technology is brilliantly marketed as being the ultimate expression of freedom with responsibility. Many middle-managers firmly believe that the cloud is what the internet always should have been: infinite storage with easy-to-control access and enough security. But is it?

A rude awakening

I’ve never been too keen on the cloud. Sure, I use github for my personal projects, and I have very little to hide. I am a huge supporter and believer of the open and free software movement. And I haven’t really been bothered by the people who had this irrational love for the cloud, believing it was the answer to all their prayers.
Not until the last couple of years, that is. I am not planning to work in the cloud any time soon. But the hardware producing companies aren’t willing to cater to people like me. All hardware that is being researched now, and that is easy to find all reeks of an evolution towards thin-client computers.

If the big companies (apple, google and Microsoft) could have their way, we’d all be working on a tablet-like machine, storing all of our data somewhere on their machines, and we’d have to check an “I agree” checkbox before logging on to our computer.
Like most of you, I never really read through all of those license agreement fidgy-widgy for most of my life. But I have come to wonder what would happen in a world where the big three had their way. Remember those early-day apple commercials that used 1984? Well, I fear we’re headed for something even worse.

Basic what-if’s

Imagine, you’re sitting at home, listening to your music on iTunes. You’ve installed that program, not because it’s the best, but it syncs your iPhone/iPod, and since you have it, there’s no incentive for you to go and look for a better alternative.
A dialog box appears saying there’s an update available. You know that, if your iTunes version is not up to date, you can’t update your iPhone/iPod’s iOS, which might mean you miss out on crucial security updates. So what do you do? You install the update.

During the installation process, you are told that apple has updated its terms & agreements (or whatever they call it). You are given the choice to accept or decline those new terms and conditions. Or at least: you are given the illusion of choice. If you choose to decline, the installer will exit, you won’t be able to update your iPhone/iPod, and will miss out on those security updates. So you really have no choice other than to accept.
This is the situation we’re in today. And if you think about it, it’s rather perverse that we have no say in what, how or when Apple, or any of the other companies, change their policy. We have to obey, and accept their license in order for us to be allowed the full use of devices we own.

Now let’s apply this same scenario to a fictitious situation where you are trying to connect to a cloud service where you’ve stored your family photo’s. When signing in, you notice there’s been made a change to the terms of that cloud service. Again you can accept or decline. But what happens if you decline? If the same thing happens as what happens with software, we’d be simply unable to access our own data, unless we accept the new terms.

Ok, so what? Big whoop? Well, I urge you to look at some of the license agreement texts of services commonly in use today. Facebook, dropbox and google…. they all have a lot of rights to access, mine and re-use your data as it is already. Imagine a world where you can’t find or afford a machine that enables you to store your data yourself, and you’re left at the mercy of such services. That is a truly terrifying thought. Terrifying!

Let it sink in. Now imagine: you’ve stored your pictures and agenda at a free service-provider X. One day, you log in, only to be told that, starting next month, there’s a monthly charge of $10 to store your data. You can, of course, pay a one-off fee of $50 to have your data exported to a number of free services listed.
Some will choose to move their data, but most people probably wont. They’ll complain for a while, but mostly: they’ll just pay a couple of dollars a month, no problem. If the App-store taught us one thing, it’s that as long as the price is low-enough, people will pay for just about anything. Including an app that mimics the sound of a fart.

At this point, we’ve ended up in a situation where we’re worse off than before: where we used to be able to store our data privately, we now end up paying a monthly fee, just to keep our data.
But that’s just the beginning. Who actually owns the data? Who actually owns those family photo’s of yours. Of course: you do, right? Sure, but by storing them on service X, you’ve given service X the right to copy, re-publish and re-use your data for commercial purposes. And of course, that right extends not only to service X, but also the companies that work with service X. And of course, even if you move all of your data away from service X, that agreement still stands, naturally.

Absurd? Paranoia? Do you think, like many others, that that won’t ever happen. Guess again! Google anounced a  new service: webdesigner. An easy tool that allows everyone to create X-platform webapps and designs. It’s free of charge, and sounds great. I even wanted to try it, until I read the license agreement, that is. Quoted directly from their “Terms of Service”

Your Content in our Services

Some of our Services allow you to submit content. You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours.

When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones. This license continues even if you stop using our Services (for example, for a business listing you have added to Google Maps). Some Services may offer you ways to access and remove content that has been provided to that Service. Also, in some of our Services, there are terms or settings that narrow the scope of our use of the content submitted in those Services. Make sure you have the necessary rights to grant us this license for any content that you submit to our Services.

I’ve underlined and coloured bits and pieces of the text. Google did not make them as conspicuous.

Who pays the price?

The cloud, and mobile devices in general have been promoted, saying that they are what will bring technology to those parts of the world that are yet not as privileged as we are. But imagine for a second that my fictional scenario, where you had to pay to store your own data, becomes reality. Will they be given access to what we have? I wouldn’t say so.

Now read through that license agreement of that Google service again, and imagine for a second you’re a young guy with a great idea. All you have to work with is a cheap tabled and some cloud services. You are forced to hand out your idea for free. It’s impossible for a freelance designer to come up with a design without google having access to it and the rights to use it.

In short: if we’re not careful, we might just all end up trapped in the cloud, where our data belongs to everyone and no-one, just like anything we produce. We might end up having to pay for storing what is ours, while at the same time having to give away our livelihood.

It’s the way of the market

Once again, we end up with the same mess: what can we do? The majority of people don’t care, as long as they can do what they want to do. They’re happy to pay for it, even. It would seem that people are willing to spend money, but not a little time and effort to find/learn to use an alternative (like Linux can be for many).
They’d much rather use a pretty Mac computer, often with windows installed on it, because that’s what they’re used to. And if they have to pay $10 each month for storage, then so be it…

It won’t be until they realize that their kids aren’t getting the same opportunities they had to make a living, that they’ll question the decisions they made. Microsoft’s monopoly, Cold war weapon stock and Nuclear power all over… History repeating itself, and we’re still not learning anything.

I can see only one way out of this bleak future. It’s open source and free software that will have to come into its own, and rise up. If enough people realize what is happening right now, and enough people are actually aware of what the FOSS and FSFE actually stand for, we might be in with a shout. If not, I’m afraid our future looks grim.
That is the problem, though, the moment you mention free software, there still is that irrational assumtion that it can’t possibly be as good as payed software (until you explain that the free part doesn’t refer to the price). People also seem to fear systems like linux, thinking it’s far beyond their capabilities, and yet many distro’s are just as easy to install as windows or OSX, if not easier.


Ah well, I’m going to leave it at this, now. Just a plea, because I really do believe this is a big thing. If you stumbled across this page by accident, and read it, and feel that there is some truth to what I claim here, please, please, please: spread the word.
Tell people about the risks we are taking. Point out to them that medical files, tax data… are all moving to the cloud. Our entire society will become dependant of the big corporations, even more so than they already are. This really is something that affects us all. I don’t have anything to hide in particular, most of us don’t. But do you really want your data to be accessible from anywhere in the world? Who cares if you can get at those pictures of last nights’ party if you are in Sydney, when you’re sitting at your desk, hung over at home? And while you’re having your fifth aspirin, maybe some script-kiddie in Nigeria is swindling elderly people, using your name and stolen ID.

Am I saying that we should never move to cloud-solutions? Of course not. I’m excited about the opportunities for us, developers. But what I am saying is that we need to legislate the playing-field. Have international rules and laws in place, before the legislative offices are working in that cloud that they have to legislate. Every word they type is stored with a company that has a vested interest in knowing the legislation, and possibly anticipate/influence it. That really would be the end of democracy.

Yours truly, a mad conspiracy theorist – Elias.

This text is free to copy to anyone – in its entirety and without mentioning this blog. The exceptions mentioned on the about page do still apply, however.


I’ve posted this rant close to two years ago, hoping that I would be proven wrong, and branded a paranoid conspiracy theorist. Recently, though, I stumbled across a post about how Apple deemed it fit to delete somebodies entire music collection FROM THAT PERSONS’ HARD DRIVE.

I still hope to one day be proven wrong, but I can’t help but feel pessimistic when I read things like this.

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4 Responses to Trapped in heaven

  1. cothrige says:

    I must thank you for directing me to this post, and also say how much I agree with your basic approach to the questions you have raised. You have seen the possible threats which arise from greater use of the cloud, but not without seeing the possible upsides which it brings. But, and this is I think the real key to these kinds of things, you have also recognized a perspective that can easily be overlooked. In technical questions I have noticed a strong tendency to something like a techno-tunnelvision. Software people, developers and such, think of things from that perspective, and tend to focus entirely on it. It is what they know, after all, and how they are usually approaching things. So, when considering other points of view it seems to mostly be regarding how people might use what they are working on or developing. But, the cloud, like many other computer issues, really does have a broad social impact. It promises to affect not just software developers, but all of us. Even if you don’t spend your day on a computer you will have data in the cloud which will be at risk unless the tough questions are answered.

    I have long felt this way about free/libre software too. The lion’s share of attention in the free software community is focused on programmers and technological people, which is perhaps natural and unsurprising. The freedom which is celebrated is that of being able to change the software code and make it do what you want. That is also natural and unsurprising, as it is certainly the central issue, but it isn’t all the good there is. We all benefit from the freedom in free software, even if we never once look at the source code or do anything more technical than ./configure, make, and sudo make install. We are all better off if we participate in the free software community, and we are all better off when we choose free software over that which is not. The central freedom it promises may only be used directly by a small subset of people involved, but everyone is more free because of it. And I see the cloud in much the same way. It starts with tech people, and then stretches out and touches everybody. And for the same reason I am very reticent to simply laud it and celebrate its broad adoption by all the huge corporations which control so much of our lives.

    • eliasvo says:

      I admit to falling pray to the technological tunnelvision from time to time, this post being no exception. I wrote this as a rant, because I’d read those google terms I quoted, and because I’ve gotten fed up with not being able to get my hands on decent hardware anymore.
      I was thinking about a follow-up, based around the Richard Stallman interview (We’re heading for a total disaster), merely pointing out what the journalist failed to understand. That would be a post that focuses more on the average Joe. The gist of it would be this:

      If you see someone peeking into the window while you’re having some quality time with your family, you want that person to leave or arrested. You’re not doing anything wrong, but that person is spoiling the moment. There are laws in place to give you the right to claim your privacy. For the same reason, people should have the right to know where what data is being stored, and they -being the person with the largest vested interest- should have the right to deny non-essential access to their records. Exceptions apply only when there is a court order, acquired through the proper channels.

      I’d be tempted to rant on about demanding this being our civic duty, and how we should all play our part if we want to preserve what is left of our democratic system.

      All in all, Glad to know you enjoyed (somewhat) reading my post, and it’s great to know that others feel the same way about the cloud as it is today. Spread the word, I’d say

      • cothrige says:

        Oh no, I enjoyed the post entirely, and I thought you avoided the pitfalls of tunnel vision admirably. And I am definitely spreading the word, but I fear that some are starting to see me as something of a paranoid. I sometimes wonder if I am becoming that crazy uncle who thinks we are being poisoned by the government putting fluoride into our water? It is good to know, though, that others are at least asking the questions too.

    • eliasvo says:

      Beeing seen as a paranoid fear monger is, sadly, part of being critical I guess. I’ve been seen as a total killjoy for questioning Apple’s marketing strategy, for example (iClould, I mean… really? FTW). People don’t seem to like my questioning what they regard as being a good thing all that much. Thankfully, theoatmeal gives a nice example of how to show people the importance of consumer awareness when it comes to cloud services ( paint a seemingly hypothetical worst-case-scenario, then give an example of how such a scenario is actually not hypothetical, but that it is already happening.

      As ever, the oatmeal post is an entertaining read, if nothing else, so enjoy.

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