Should we regulate the cloud?

Trefor Davies

By Trefor Davies

Thursday, 6 June, 2013

Today I am at a CIO event in London discussing the topic “Too important to be regulated and too important to be left alone” (Forbes) – Should we regulate the cloud?

You could extend this question to encompass the whole internet. Really there is no difference between the internet and the cloud.

When you think about it, as the whole world drags its living and breathing self into the cloud, it is natural that we should expect laws that exist on terra firma to apply to the cloud. There is no reason why they should not. What is illegal on earth should also be illegal in the heavens. The notion of being robbed or assaulted is just as unattractive in cyberspace as it is in the high street.

It is reasonable therefore that regulations should apply. There are also quite probably new ways of doing harm to people in the cloud that do not exist on the ground or at least were difficult to have any real or obvious impact. The theft of intellectual property for example is far easier on the web than in the old days of photocopying or taping. The distribution of illegal child abuse material is facilitated by the click of an icon on a pc. The grooming of children using social media platforms. The spreading of racial hatred. You can add more to the list I’m sure.

None of this is desirable. In fact we don’t want any of it to happen, be it in our physical or ethereal existences.

The world wide web is only 20 years old. It’s a fantastic place to be. I spend a considerable chunk of my waking time on it, work and play. It is educating, entertaining, absorbing and of course dangerous. I am writing this post from the British library. I crossed a number of busy roads to get here. I knew to wait until the lights were green before I crossed so that I could be reasonably sure that I wasn’t going to be flattened by a car or lorry in doing so. It isn’t foolproof but the percentages are in my favour. I have been educated into waiting for the light to go green.

Recently my wife nearly succumbed to a phishing attempt. She entered all our bank details but the submit button wouldn’t accept the information because the form was looking for a US format social security number. Now she has learnt a bit more about phishing she knows what to look out for. Also we have changed her email to run on a gmail account – google is great for catching such phishing attempts.

We are all learning how to live on the internet just as we have had to learn how to cross the road safely. When I was a kid I leant the green Cross Code. I assume they still do it.

Many of the laws that exist in the UK are there, good and bad, after hundreds of years of political evolution, some date back to biblical days – thou shalt not kill, steal etc. It takes time to develop the thinking for some laws. Situations are never simple. Unintended consequences abound. Knock one problem on the head and another two pop up elsewhere.

Most politicians run for office because they want to make a difference. Whatever you think of their politics they are all there to try and make things better for everyone. Running a country is a very difficult job. Many countries have people in charge who fail. They live in a constant state of political turmoil.

It is natural for politicians to want to do what they can to make the internet a safe place to be. It is in everyone’s interest. But we have to be hugely careful here.

Here’s an example why. The Draft Data Communications Bill that was left out of the Queen’s Speech wanted to monitor every aspect of our online lives. Quite apart from the huge privacy implications, this sort of legislation potentially has the unintended consequence of stifling the development of new internet businesses and technologies in the UK. The overhead on small businesses in needing to comply with such legislation would a killer. The way around this is to exempt small businesses but this would create an environment where people wanting to avoid surveillance would simply move to a small ISP (notwithstanding the many other ways of avoiding detection). None of this discussion is new.

In the ISP game we constantly hear calls from politicians for us to police the internet. We heard it after the murder of Lee Rigby – calls for more surveillance. The security forces were already aware of the two suspects in this case (why do we call them suspects when we have all seen images of them wielding the blood soaked machete). They just don’t have enough people on the ground to do anything about it. Would more electronic surveillance have made any difference?

Now DCMS Minister Maria Miller is calling for ISPs to do more to prevent children accessing “harmful material”. Surely nobody can object to this? Can they? The recording industry has taken to the courts to get judges to order ISPs to block access to websites that facilitate the unlawful swapping of music.

There are almost certainly examples of other areas where someone wielding political power wants to control our access to the internet. It happens all the time in some other countries. China and Iran for example.

It used to happen in Tunisia before the revolution came along. Not only were the shackles removed from the Tunisian people but they were also removed from their internet. The immediate effect is one of increased competition and reduced costs for accessing the web.

If we add up all the constant talk of regulation and restraint of the internet here in the UK we would be taking big steps towards having the type of constraints that exist in the countries mentioned above.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the discussions but I am certain that it does mean that we shouldn’t rush to implement regulations without fully understanding their unintended consequences.

PS I know this is a recurring theme on trefor.net but that is because it is a recurring theme in the UK.

Trefor Davies

This article was written by Trefor Davies
on Thursday, 6 June, 2013

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