A reminder that we are all renters in the cloud

‚ÄĘ ~700 words ‚ÄĘ 3 minute read

There was a bit of hoopla in the tech world last week about a watch but also about a marketing stunt Apple pulled at the event where they gave away free copies of U2's new album Songs of Innocence. The backlash was not so much to the music itself but the way it was delivered. Instead making it free to download or supplying promo codes to enable people to download it they simply added the album to your list of purchased albums in your iCloud library. It showed up just as though you'd purchased it normally.

A lot of smart tech-ish folks have written on the matter but Dan Wineman's roundup and own analysis on it is probably everything you need to know about it, if you really want to know more (Every time I want to point to something and say that's the living, breathing definition of a first-world problem it seems like a new thing comes along shortly to take its place. So I won't do that.). There has been enough backlash to prompt apple to create this support page by people who are offended by the album's very presence in their collection (On mine it showed up right inbetween Trollstilt and "Various," which is a somehow incorrectly labeled entry for this grand album.), which is a little amusing but also exasperating.

I don't really care at all to be honest, but it did remind me of and allow me to articulate something I've long though: when it comes to "the could"  (When clients sometimes ask me if something if on the cloud I'll often pause and reply "It's on the... internet. If that's what you mean." That's a separate gripe for a separate post.) we are all renters, not owners. These services might sell ownership as an aspect of the service, the legalese you never read but agree too might even assert your ownership to some satisfactory degree, but in practice it's more like renting.

When you buy an album for $9.99 on iTunes you're renting space for that album to sit and its servers and be accessible to you, theoretically anytime, anywhere, until the end of time. But that doesn't always work out. Sometimes agreements with distributors dissolve, the content disappears from the server and if you didn't download a hardcopy to your own machine before that happened you're out of luck. Amazon's situation in 2009 with George Orwell's 1984 being remotely erased from people's devices is starting to look like a prescient reminder of how transient the nature of ownership in the cloud could be (I also just love everything about that situation. Could you pick a more perfect book? I almost wonder if it was intentional, like some kind of performance art.).

Amazon Web Services stops hosting Wikileaks because they're violating their terms of service. Maybe the FBI walks into a data center and takes a server your website just happens to be hosted, even though they're looking for something else, and your site gets taken offline. But that last one seems kind of old-school when they have fiber-optic splitters trying to intercept everything on the internet anyway. Every so often another startup becomes insolvent, shuts its doors and you're scrambling to find a new home for your content, provided they've kindly built a feature that allows you to export this data and its data you could actually transfer and reuse elsewhere (I'm reminded of Google Wave. I recall when the announced they were sunsetting the product and you could export your data but I remember thinking "What would I do with it?" I think reusing it in any meaningful way would probably require getting up and running with the open-source project it turned into... No thanks.)

You can assert your ownership of anything in a cloud service. You may be legally correct. You may be morally correct. But so long as our stuff is sitting out there on other people's servers it's best to regard it with the same caution as a renter.