The following commentary by HLS Professor Jonathan Zittrain ’95 on Google’s new operating system, Chrome, appeared in The New York Times on July 19 and in Newsweek on July 9. Zittrain is the author of “The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It.”
The New York Times: Lost in the Cloud
July 19, 2009
EARLIER this month Google announced a new operating system called Chrome. It’s meant to transform personal computers and handheld devices into single-purpose windows to the Web. This is part of a larger trend: Chrome moves us further away from running code and storing our information on our own PCs toward doing everything online — also known as in “the cloud” — using whatever device is at hand.
Many people consider this development to be as sensible and inevitable as the move from answering machines to voicemail. With your stuff in the cloud, it’s not a catastrophe to lose your laptop, any more than losing your glasses would permanently destroy your vision. In addition, as more and more of our information is gathered from and shared with others — through Facebook, MySpace or Twitter — having it all online can make a lot of sense.
The cloud, however, comes with real dangers.
Some are in plain view. If you entrust your data to others, they can let you down or outright betray you. For example, if your favorite music is rented or authorized from an online subscription service rather than freely in your custody as a compact disc or an MP3 file on your hard drive, you can lose your music if you fall behind on your payments — or if the vendor goes bankrupt or loses interest in the service. Last week Amazon apparently conveyed a publisher’s change-of-heart to owners of its Kindle e-book reader: some purchasers of Orwell’s “1984” found it removed from their devices, with nothing to show for their purchase other than a refund. (Orwell would be amused.)
Worse, data stored online has less privacy protection both in practice and under the law. A hacker recently guessed the password to the personal e-mail account of a Twitter employee, and was thus able to extract the employee’s Google password. That in turn compromised a trove of Twitter’s corporate documents stored too conveniently in the cloud. Before, the bad guys usually needed to get their hands on people’s computers to see their secrets; in today’s cloud all you need is a password.
Thanks in part to the Patriot Act, the federal government has been able to demand some details of your online activities from service providers — and not to tell you about it. There have been thousands of such requests lodged since the law was passed, and the F.B.I.’s own audits have shown that there can be plenty of overreach — perhaps wholly inadvertent — in requests like these.
The cloud can be even more dangerous abroad, as it makes it much easier for authoritarian regimes to spy on their citizens. The Chinese government has used the Chinese version of Skype instant messaging software to monitor text conversations and block undesirable words and phrases. It and other authoritarian regimes routinely monitor all Internet traffic — which, except for e-commerce and banking transactions, is rarely encrypted against prying eyes.
With a little effort and political will, we could solve these problems. Companies could be required under fair practices law to allow your data to be released back to you with just a click so that you can erase your digital footprints or simply take your business (and data) elsewhere. They could also be held to the promises they make about content sold through the cloud: If they sell you an e-book, they can’t take it back or make it less functional later. To increase security, companies that keep their data in the cloud could adopt safer Internet communications and password practices, including the use of biometrics like fingerprints to validate identity.
And some governments can be persuaded — or perhaps required by their independent judiciaries — to treat data entrusted to the cloud with the same level of privacy protection as data held personally. The Supreme Court declared in 1961 that a police search of a rented house for a whiskey still was a violation of the Fourth Amendment privacy rights of the tenant, even though the landlord had given permission for the search. Information stored in the cloud deserves similar safeguards.
But the most difficult challenge — both to grasp and to solve — of the cloud is its effect on our freedom to innovate. The crucial legacy of the personal computer is that anyone can write code for it and give or sell that code to you — and the vendors of the PC and its operating system have no more to say about it than your phone company does about which answering machine you decide to buy. Microsoft might want you to run Word and Internet Explorer, but those had better be good products or you’ll switch with a few mouse clicks to OpenOffice orFirefox.
Promoting competition is only the tip of the iceberg — there are also the thousands of applications so novel that they don’t yet compete with anything. These tend to be produced by tinkerers and hackers. Instant messaging, peer-to-peer file sharing and the Web itself all exist thanks to people out in left field, often writing for fun rather than money, who are able to tempt the rest of us to try out what they’ve done.
This freedom is at risk in the cloud, where the vendor of a platform has much more control over whether and how to let others write new software. Facebook allows outsiders to add functionality to the site but reserves the right to change that policy at any time, to charge a fee for applications, or to de-emphasize or eliminate apps that court controversy or that they simply don’t like. The iPhone’s outside apps act much more as if they’re in the cloud than on your phone: Apple can decide who gets to write code for your phone and which of those offerings will be allowed to run. The company has used this power in ways that Bill Gates never dreamed of when he was the king of Windows: Apple is reported to have censored e-book apps that contain controversial content, eliminated games with political overtones, and blocked uses for the phone that compete with the company’s products.
The market is churning through these issues. Amazon is offering a generic cloud-computing infrastructure so anyone can set up new software on a new Web site without gatekeeping by the likes of Facebook. Google’s Android platform is being used in a new generation of mobile phones with fewer restrictions on outside code. But the dynamics here are complicated. When we vest our activities and identities in one place in the cloud, it takes a lot of dissatisfaction for us to move. And many software developers who once would have been writing whatever they wanted for PCs are simply developing less adventurous, less subversive, less game-changing code under the watchful eyes of Facebook and Apple.
If the market settles into a handful of gated cloud communities whose proprietors control the availability of new code, the time may come to ensure that their platforms do not discriminate. Such a demand could take many forms, from an outright regulatory requirement to a more subtle set of incentives — tax breaks or liability relief — that nudge companies to maintain the kind of openness that earlier allowed them a level playing field on which they could lure users from competing, mighty incumbents.
We’ve only just begun to measure this problem, even as we fly directly into the cloud. That’s not a reason to turn around. But we must make sure the cloud does not hinder the creation of revolutionary software that, like the Web itself, can seem esoteric at first but utterly necessary later.
July 9, 2009
Google and Microsoft are now officially fighting over you. They are vying not merely for your momentary attention—that rare instant when your precious eyeballs stray to an ad, motivating you to click on it and cause a penny or a nickel to fall into their jars. They want a long-term relationship with you, and each thinks its future depends on it.
Google made its boldest bid in this direction this week with the announcement of its new operating system, Chrome. Soon you will be able to buy a PC or other device loaded with Chrome instead of Windows. By Google’s account, Chrome will serve a single essential purpose: to get your computer up and running with a Web browser —confusingly also called Chrome—seconds after you’ve turned it on. Now you’ll be greeted each day by Google instead of Microsoft. Just as all those years ago Microsoft Windows pointed you toward Microsoft’s other products, Google’s browser will likely naturally angle you toward Google’s ever-expanding family of Web products.
If the plan succeeds and lots of people snap up Chrome instead of Windows, it will cement the idea that software is now meant to run out there “in the cloud,” far away from the PC or PDA in front of you. You’ll need an Internet connection to do most things—and to be sure, that’s much easier to find in 2009 than it was in 1995. The question is, in the era of the cloud, how do we avoid sacrificing our essential computing freedoms?
The issue arises because Google aspires to be not only the index of your information, but also the repository. As Google Mail seamlessly interacts with Google Docs and Spreadsheets (the whole service is called Google Apps), you might find yourself spending most of your time not simply on the Web, but at Google.com or its partners. Google could be as dominating a presence in the cloud era as Microsoft has been in the PC era.
Google’s announcement is a milestone within a long transition from the PC to the Web. For about two decades, an overwhelming majority of computer users were greeted by Microsoft’s Windows startup screen and chime. Microsoft collected fees for the basic software that ran your PC, and then again by selling application software such as word processors and spreadsheets. Software developers would write new software for Windows since that’s where the users were, and users would keep buying Windows since that’s where the software was. As the Web took off in the late 1990s, the browser began to disturb this arrangement. Netscape got the idea of bundling software called Java with its browser, which made it powerful enough to take on word processing, spreadsheets, and many other things.
Google is now on the verge of finishing what Netscape started. So far, Google hasn’t fully figured out its business model. Instead of charging you the way Microsoft did for Windows and Office, perhaps Google will stick with ads, hoping you’ll occasionally click on something. Or perhaps, serving as the hub of your online identity, Google can help you spend your money on other sites, taking a cut the way your credit-card company does from a merchant when you make a purchase. Or perhaps Google will charge developers for the privilege of running their software on the Google Apps platform, or even to run it elsewhere but drawing upon Google resources—the way that a restaurant’s Web site might help you find the place by embedding an interactive Google map on one of its pages.
Although no one can predict Chrome’s future, the Web relentlessly pulls us, and our data in. Unless we come up with ways of protecting ourselves now, our data could be shaped and used in ways we haven’t imagined and that are beyond our control. We could find it hard to switch from one service provider to another after piling up so much information, and so many relationships, in one place. We ought to be able to move our data, with just a click, from one gated community to another—from, say, Microsoft’s Office Live, its suite of Web-based software, to Google Apps. We ought to be able to bridge our identities from one place to another, instead of having to choose just one. Why shouldn’t our Google Docs be permanently accessible through Office Live and vice versa, and on to some upstart site that no one’s heard of? Market forces may naturally take care of this—but they are not magic, and a little bit of well-crafted regulation (or the threat of it) can help maintain a competitive marketplace.
Freedom for you is one half of the puzzle. The other half is freedom for those who write software. Even in a world mostly of Windows, there are thousands of different pieces of software that can be found, and Bill Gates has had nothing to say about whether they would be allowed to run on his platform. We ought to preserve similar freedoms in a new world where Web platforms can and do shut down outside software all the time, whether on the Facebook platform or Google Apps. This might come about through software authors uniting to temper some of the practices that give Web-platform makers much more control over outside software than Microsoft ever had for its desktops, or again, through narrow regulation to ensure nondiscriminatory accessibility to these platforms—especially if one platform outgrows the rest.
Long-term relationships can be extremely valuable and healthy; it makes sense to get new and promising ones off on the right foot.