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Computing In The Cloud: Who Owns Your Files?
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Computing In The Cloud: Who Owns Your Files?

Digital Life

Computing In The Cloud: Who Owns Your Files?
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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. If you have an e-mail account with Yahoo or Gmail, if you put pictures on Flickr or you maintain your schedule online, then you are living in the cloud.

Cloud computing is what tech companies call it when you don't keep your pictures and e-mails or other stuff on your own computer, when you keep them on the Internet.

It's convenient. Anywhere you can get online, you have access to your stuff. But as NPR's Laura Sydell reports, life in the cloud isn't all rainbows.

LAURA SYDELL: Twenty-three-year-old Abel Habtegeorgis is pretty typical for someone his age. He stores the most important documents of his life online in the cloud, from family photos to conversations with his mom.

Mr. ABEL HABTEGEORGIS: It's easier in a lot of ways, and it's so amazing to have access to like, you know, just so many pictures and everything. I've just given this thing so much trust. So I use Flickr, I use, you know, Google, Gmail. I mean, everything is just - pretty much, my life is up there.

SYDELL: So he was really upset when one day…

Mr. HABTEGEORGIS: And I type in my password. It doesn't work, you know, and I'm just like, you know, what's going on here? And I type it again and again and again, and I realize something's wrong with the company itself or the server or the email account, whatever.

SYDELL: Habtegeorgis couldn't get to his photos of his nephew. He tried to reach someone at Google but couldn't. Suddenly he realized that he had no idea what kind of rights he had over those emails because he never did read that user agreement when he signed up.

Mr. HABTEGEORGIS: Nobody reads the user agreements. I mean, we'll just be perfectly honest. Nobody, I mean - if you need an account with Gmail, if you need an account with Yahoo or something, you don't read that 90-page document.

SYDELL: Habtegeorgis finally got back into his account only after NPR mentioned his problem to Google. The company says there was some sort of security issue.

Habtegeorgis is not alone in his reliance on the cloud. Yahoo alone boasts 261 million active email users in the month of June. The company's photo sharing site, Flickr, reports that it hosts 2.5 billion photographs.

Increasingly, Internet companies are offering new online services that appeal not only to individuals but to businesses. Samantha Sullivan is part of a small film company in the San Francisco Bay Area called Scary Cow. The company couldn't afford its own offices, so everyone works from home.

Ms. SAMANTHA SULLIVAN (Producer, Scary Crow Productions): To schedule getting everybody in the same room at the same time is somewhat challenging, so we do a lot of collaborative work online.

SYDELL: Sullivan and her colleagues use Google's growing number of online applications. Google's online schedules make it easier to set up meetings; budgets can be done on shared spreadsheets; they can collaborate on scripts using Google documents.

Ms. SULLIVAN: So what we'll do is we'll be on the phone, but we'll actually have real-time documents, shared documents open that we're going to be working on as a group.

SYDELL: Sullivan's company stores scripts, video footage and working documents all online.

Did you read Google's agreement and the legal stuff around who owns the stuff you're putting on their servers?

Ms. SULLIVAN: Absolutely not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SYDELL: That's too bad, says Harry Lewis, a computer science professor at Harvard, because there are some details Sullivan might want to know. For example, if someone comes along and accuses you - they don't have to prove it - of storing something illegal on your account, most online companies reserve the right to shut you down.

Professor HARRY LEWIS (Harvard University): If it's easier for them to just kill your account than it is to fight back against this complaint, which may or may not be valid, and you know, if you're not an important customer, you know, they may just find it easier to make you go away.

SYDELL: Lewis says part of the problem is that when it comes to storing your life in the cloud, there are no laws.

Mr. LEWIS: We're all kind of used to the idea that if you don't pay your telephone bill, you know, they're not going to shut off your phone while you're off on vacation. And in fact, there are laws about how quickly they can shut off your telephone service. But your cloud storage service, there's no rules.

SYDELL: Except for the ones in that user agreement that most people don't read. For example: Facebook. When you put your Facebook page up, you pretty much give the company the right to do whatever they want with it.

According to the user agreement, Facebook can use, copy, publicly display, publicly perform, reformat, excerpt, and distribute it.

Despite potential problems, tech companies see consumers inevitably marching towards cloud computing. Several companies, including Hewlett Packard, are making cheap portable notebook computers with small hard drives that will rely on the cloud for storage. Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple now all provide online services.

Sam Schillace is part of the team designing online applications at Google. He waxes on enthusiastically about the convenience it provides.

Mr. SAM SCHILLACE (Engineering Director, Google): The data's always where you can find it. Your laptop crashes and the hard disc gets erased, your data's still fine. You know, all of that good stuff happens, and once you get into that habit of, I don't know where any of my documents are anymore, I can just search for them, they're all online, I can always find what I want, I don't have to worry about managing any of that. It's wonderful.

SYDELL: Except when it's not. Just recently, 20,000 paying customers of a small cloud storage company called Linkup lost large amounts of information when the company shut down. But for most companies, cloud computing is too important for the companies to mess it up, says Google's Sam Schillace.

Mr. SCHILLACE: It's something we have to get right or the model won't actually work. It's got to be your data that follows you around. When you give your credentials to a Web site, you've got to be able to do what you want to do with your data on that Web site.

SYDELL: Cloud computing seems unstoppable as we turn on our BlackBerrys, iPhones and laptops and expect the convenience of having our information anywhere we are, but as we move in that direction, you should really read that user agreement before you click the accept button.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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