Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Consumers View of Cloud Computing

Greeting from the famous room N101 at the Australian National University, where Professor Roger Clarke is speaking on "The Cloudy Future of Consumer Computing". He started by pointing out that what the consumer understands by "Cloud Computing" is different to what the IT academic understand it to be. Essentially, home users see cloud computing as being on-line services, including email and document storage. As consumers have multiple old and new devices, they are constantly worrying about synchronising between devices. For this reason they are moving their content to "the cloud". Roger commented that a significant number of people are now reading content on smart phones, even for bulky old style documents. Apple iPads act are essentially as large screen smart phone devices, with much of the operating system locked down to make it an easy to operate consumer appliance. Many of the applications now popular for consumer devices had equivalents on the Internet, but have been repackaged to make consumer services. The result is a lack of control for the consumer, with the service provider being in control. As a topic for academic research this is a complex area.

Roger concentrated the Terms of Service which online services are offered under. He pointed out that as the TOS are typically listed as a web page, they can be changed whenever the suppler wishes. Typically the TOS indicate it is up to the consumer to check for changes. I found that some service providers, such as Linden Labs have an archive of previous TOS. But in most cases, as Roger points out, it would be up to the consumer to try and find a copy of the TOS applicable at a particular time.

Roger asked the audience how the research into TOR should be expanded, given that such work is not funded by the Australian Government. It occurred to me that there would be commercial value in such research. One way to do a larger study would be to use automated searches of TOR licenses and form a tree showing what terms are common. This could then be sued to advise companies (and governments). Also some standardized TOR could be developed this might be offered with an international standardized on-line arbitration process, similar to that used for Web Domain Dispute Resolution Policy.

Roger ended on the provocative point of asking if general purpose computers would be banned in future. This was on the assumption that as smart consumer devices became more common and used for applications such as banking, there could be a push for access by the consumer to modify the software on such devices would be banned. Such calls may seem far fetched, but the UK has discussed being able to shut down parts of the mobile phone network to prevent them from being used to coordinate riots. There are already systems in pace for giving government services priority access to the mobile network, such as UK's MTPAS (Mobile Telecommunication Privileged Access Scheme) and Australian "Wireless Priority Service System" (WPSS).
Consumers used to run software on their own devices and store their data at home. They are now increasingly dependent on service-providers for both functionality and data-storage. Risk assessment techniques need to be applied to consumer contexts. These are diverse, covering many kinds of consumer devices, many different consumer profiles, and various consumer needs.

A preliminary evaluation was undertaken of some key legal aspects of consumer protection. It concluded that consumers who place reliance on outsourced consumer services may be seriously exposed, because the Terms of Service of mainstream service-providers offer very low levels of assurance about features critical to consumers' interests.

Brief comments will also be made on the prospects of general-purpose computing devices ceasing to be available to consumers. The driver for this is the increasing dominance over consumer needs of the business interests of equipment suppliers and copyright-owning organisations, the demands of the moral minority to determine what everyone should be able to and not to access, and the national security extremist agenda, which mutually reinforce one another.


No comments: