The Authoritarian Cloud

Cloud Computing is the “new thing.”  Everyone is rushing to it — the new Federal Cloud Computing Strategy isn’t called “Cloud First” for no reason.  Indeed, the reasons to like the cloud are obvious With economies of scale it is often cheaper and more efficient at the same time — what’s not to like?

In the end, maybe more than we realize.  Today’s cloud system uses “thin clients” — simple interfaces like Google’s Chrome system — with minimal independent computing power.  All of the data, software, and operating systems, software, and processing resources are stored in the cloud, managed by a cloud system administrator.

If that sounds familiar, it should.  We are, quickly, recapturing the system configuration of the early 1980s, when dumb terminals (little more than a screen and a keyboard) connected to a mainframe maintained by a systems administrator.  The administrator made the resource allocation decisions, prioritized work and controlled access to the processing systems.  So the translation is clear:  thin client = dumb terminal; cloud = mainframe.

That centralized system of control if fundamentally authoritarian.  Today’s internet structure empowers individuals.  On my laptop I have more processing power and data storage capacity than imaginable.  From here I can link to the web and communicate with anyone.  I choose my own software, save my own data, and innovate as and when I please.

In a cloud system or the old mainframe system, I make none of those decisions — my software is provided by the system administrator; who stores my data and controls what new innovations are made available. That’s a fundamentally authoritarian model where I lose much of the independence that has made the web a fountain of innovation and invention.

In a liberal western democracy, perhaps that is not a problem — after all, I don’t have to choose Google as my cloud provider if I don’t want to.  But in more authoritarian states, the trend toward the cloud will make citizens even less able to control their own destiny.  The internet empowered the liberty of dissent; we should be concerned that the cloud may take it away.

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