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Policy makers, businesses debate role of Washington in cloud computing

Behind Facebook, Gmail and the Bing search engine is a multibillion-dollar shift in technology that users don’t see and Washington doesn’t quite know how to handle.

That trend is called cloud computing: the hosting of data on remote servers that can be tapped from any computer connected to the Web. And the policy implications of cloud computing was the subject of debate last night at a roundtable dinner discussion at the Aspen Institute, hosted by Microsoft.

Microsoft has emerged as a proponent of some rules of the road for the largely Wild West that cloud computing companies such as Google, Yahoo and Amazon operate. Yes, that’s right – the company wants more rules. Microsoft has called on Congress to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to clearly apply to protections on the Web. And it wants stronger rules against cyber attacks by reforming the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Like so many parts of the Web, cloud computing doesn’t fit neatly under regulatory oversight of any one agency. Check out Verizon and AT&T’s call for Congress to rethink the way federal regulators oversee Internet service providers, applications, cloud computing and device makers.

Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell wouldn’t offer an opinion on Verizon’s call to restructure Internet oversight. But he said during a visit to The Post Thursday that regulators at the Federal Communications Commission and other agencies are often trying to “fit square pegs into circles” as they apply old rules for phones and other technologies to the fast -moving high-tech and Web industries.

At the Aspen dinner, Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith talked about the great opportunities that cloud computing presents to them and other companies – computer makers such as Dell and applications companies such as Twitter. But there needs to be greater attention by Washington policy makers and Congress to protect companies from attacks on their servers and privacy (law enforcement, for example, routinely ask for data on the cloud, which is unprotected from privacy protections).

“Courts are less clear about what is reasonable expectations of privacy when it comes to data that goes to a third-party” server, Smith said.

But there was debate on how much government regulation there should be over cloud computing and over self-regulation of the market.

When Google launched its Buzz social networking application, user outcries and criticism on the Web prompted the company to quickly change policies for the application that was tied to Gmail, noted Aspen President Walter Isaacson.

Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, questioned whether there needed to be rules for free applications such as Google’s e-mail program, for instance. You pay more for a Volvo, he said, than a Pinto, with the guarantees that the Volvo is safer.

To that, many in the room said there should be basic privacy and security protections for all consumers.

The Federal Trade Commission is investigating privacy implications in cloud computing. Jessica Rich, deputy director of the bureau of consumer protection at the FTC, said one consideration is that consumers often don’t know where their data is being held or what protections they have.

Overseas, any rules or frameworks for cloud computing operators get even murkier.

What happens to a global citizen when their data is in a different jurisdiction than their nation? What rules apply to that person’s data?

Nations don’t agree necessarily with one another on privacy or other rules online. And there isn’t any framework that the United States, Europe and Asia all operate.

“The struggle is when you try to replicate border on the Internet with cloud computing,” said Eugene Huang, a senior adviser to the U.S. chief technology officer.

Those divisions have played out most strongly with online censorship, with 30 percent of Internet users living in countries that censor the Web, said Alec Ross, senior adviser on innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

After Google, Go Daddy and Network Solutions’ decision to cease new operations in China because of the nation’s censoring practices, the issues have taken even greater prominence for U.S. policymakers.

“This is really popping and something that will be very disruptive,” Ross said. “We need to think about who the great actors are and what they do with that information … and then set forth a clear set of values and norms.”

By Cecilia Kang  |  March 26, 2010; 12:31 PM ET
 
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Comments

FYI: Last year I posted a presentation on a possible Federal Open Cloud Initiative to stimulate discussion on Cloud computing collaboration of government and industry

http://www.scribd.com/doc/12704194/Federal-Open-Cloud-Computing-Initiative-FOCI

Posted by: bobmarcus | March 26, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Cecilia,

This is a timely post on an important topic. As I advise business leaders, they need to be VERY cognizant of what a move to the cloud means, and how they are going to manage cloud computing initiatives. That will be even more important for Fortune 500-5000 CEOs to consider, IMHO, than simply analyzing and deciding on moving to a cloud infrastructure.

Regarding government regulation, the pros and cons on both (or even more!) sides of the argument are complex and compelling. We must remain vigilant and ensure reasonable-sounding proposals actually serve the greater good and are not simply any particular vendor's self-serving interests packaged as public interest.

Imran Anwar
IMRAN.COM
Talk to me at Twitter/Skype/iChat: ImranAnwar

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