Cloudy Cloud Part Two: Fixing Chrome OS

December 14th, 2010

Richard Stallman informs the public in the Guardian with his opinion on Cloud Computing.

He is absolutely correct that the way Cloud Computing works right now is insane, and that anyone who trusts Google or any other Cloud Computing service with their data is ‘a sucker’.

The main problems that should concern anyone who is thinking about using these services are these; the sysadmins (the owners of the Cloud Computing service) can see all the data on the cloud that they manage, if they decide to cut you off for any reason, Wikileaks style, your data is lost. All it takes is a single phone call from the State, no warrant, no legal process. Lastly, the police can serve a warrant on the host company and not you personally to look at your data.

All of these are legitimate concerns, but what is not being seen here is why Cloud Computing could be attractive to millions of consumers.

Like many men who are confronted by difficult subjects, processes, realities and facts that they find inconvenient, consumers simply do not want to think about how their computers work; they just want to ‘do their email’.

The vast majority of people who use computers today do only two things on them; surfing the web and email. The Google Cloud Computing platform will do both of these wonderfully; it turns on instantly, has a very long battery life, and you can access your gmail (or any other webmail service) in an interface that you are already familiar with.

That is all most people need, and Cloud Computing does it identically to a local storage machine running a browser…. and there are still people out there, believe it or not, who ask ‘what is a browser’. This is the point that Richard Stallman does not understand, and it is the reason why Cloud Computing could take off in a big way. There are people, from the highly intelligent to the most stupid amongst us who are uninterested in ethics or the consequences of their actions, or how the world and technology really works.

There is another aspect to this that we have already touched upon on BLOGDIAL, and for the record, software is perhaps the only speech for which this statement always returns ‘true’ the answer to attacks on free speech is more speech.

As we wrote before, the problem of your data being visible to the sysadmins of Cloud Computing services can be solved by encrypting all the data on the users platform before it is stored in the Cloud so that Google cannot see it even if they wanted to. This would mean that the State serving a warrant on Google would be pointless, since all Google would be able to present to the police is unreadable ciphertext.

You solve the problem of privacy on Cloud Computing services not by complaining about them, or asking the State to outlaw what you do not like, but by writing software libraries and interfaces.

Then there is the problem of the State cutting you off from your files by forcing or intimidating the Cloud Computing service provider to do so.

This can also be solved by writing software; a simple adaptation of the Open Source tool rsync (a powerful mirroring tool) could do it; all the data that you generate on your Cloud Computing tablet or laptop is seamlessly sent to a mirror on your home or office computer, over SSL so that no one can see it in transit. It is stored in plaintext, in an identical folder structure so you can retrieve it at any time without downtime.

And there you have it.

There is no reason whatsoever why Cloud Computing cannot give you all the convenience of its particular innovations, with the security that your data cannot be seen or seized; all it takes is a little (in fact, very little) thought.

Looking back through the BLOGDIAL archive, we find that this negative attitude towards companies and their innovations is a bit of a theme with the FSF.

Defective By Design ran a campaign to try and get everyone to ‘not buy an iPhone’, the best ever mobile phone at the time.

When they were making this boycott call, Jailbreaking had already become wildly popular, with over 25% of all iPhones in circulation have been jailbroken / liberated.

Instead of helping that software effort, and using Jailbreaking as a means to educate people about all the important issues surrounding the Apple ecosystem, Defective by Design got precisely nothing and nowhere. It would have been far more useful to them if they had joined forces with Saurik so that he could improve the usability of the jailbreaking process and non Apple ecosystem software.

The lesson here is clear; in this information war, writing software is the key to winning anything real. Protesting, calling for boycotts of philosophically malodorous products and all other tactics like that simply do not work. The iPhone is bigger than ever, and so is Jailbreaking, which has now been determined to be legal; the FSF lost a big opportunity by not supporting it.

Android is gaining ground on iPhone sales; this is because the software is better philosophically. Apple is going to lose this one, in the same way that it lost the ‘PC war’, and the same way that Microsoft is going to be superseded by GNU/Linux. These behemoths may seem to be in an unassailable position, especially in the case of iTunes but in the end, they will fall, because the systems are not open, and they control the users like serfs. In particular, once everyone can do an A/B comparison to Android’s upcoming music service, or some other future service, iTunes will be dumped en masse.

With the Google Cloud Computing platform, there is an unprecedented opportunity to change the way it works by taking the Chrome OS source and altering it to make it privacy centred. Why would you, as a consumer, not take something that is private over something that is not, and which gives you local backups for free, without any change in the interface and no effort on your part? Even a sucker would go for it, and furthermore, the development of this is something that I would pay for and financially contribute to the building of.

One thing is for sure, all the complaining in the world will not make Chrome OS sane. The only sensible, moral and ethical way to fix it is to take it and modify it in a way that makes it trivial for anyone to have ‘Cloudy Chrome’ on their machine, with a simple patch or by any other simple means. People are willing to patch and modify their property in their millions, as we have seen with the iPhone jailbreaking phenomenon. Privacy and freedom are popular; what needs to be done is to make it easy for people to be free on Chrome OS.

Finally, what you cannot ever justify is calling on the State to force Google to respect the privacy of its users. There are some out there who have no problem with the idea of calling on the State to violate millions of people as a means of spreading their personal philosophies. They would, in a second, lobby for new law to force Google and all Cloud Computing service providers to add privacy and local backup facilities to their products. Calling on the state in this way is fundamentally unethical and unacceptable to all decent people. The way to change people’s minds about anything is to show them why doing it ‘my way’ is better. This means writing software that they can use, that costs them nothing to switch to (either in money or learning curve terms) that is clearly better for them.

Roll on Jailbroken Chrome OS!

One Response to “Cloudy Cloud Part Two: Fixing Chrome OS”

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