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GAFAM clouds everywhere – consumers need European alternatives

Image: Adobe Stock / jullasart

The cloud has become the prerequisite and natural way for many of the things we do online. In addition to its use as an online storage and backup solution, almost all popular digital services run on cloud as their backbone for customer interactions.

During the Covid-19 pandemics, cloud-based services provided the best way to connect to your team at work, or to friends and relatives at home. Even those not aware of it, started using communication and collaboration tools that have a cloud built in at their core. However, in many cases, the cloud in question is provided by one of only a few big US companies.

Data centre access in your pocket

For personal use, cloud storage means both more flexibility and a significantly higher level of security: instead of keeping data on a physical device, consumers can entrust it into the hands of experts who take constant and thorough care of its safe storage. A smartphone in your pocket can instantly access immense amounts of cloud data from anywhere in the world. Keeping data at a reliable data centre, gives customers the peace of mind they will never have when carrying around the only copy of important data in their pocket, or when relying on a single hard-drive backup at home.

Convenience can trick into less optimal solutions

Billions of internet users rely on their social media accounts today as their actual online storage for private photos and video. Social platforms and messengers, mostly belonging to the Meta (formerly Facebook) conglomerate, try to make user experience comfortable and simple: uploading a photo on Facebook or Instagram, and sharing it with your loved ones through WhatsApp gives the impression that you have found the perfect space where it can be kept from now on.

But only a few are aware of the significant reduction in photo quality that messengers undertake before uploading and sending a photo. Also, hardly anyone gives thought to what will happen to all the memorable holiday photo albums if a social platform one day decides to change its policy, or if you decide to move your data to another platform. Will it be possible to download all the pictures in their original quality, and will this process be as convenient and fast as was sharing them on the timeline? Social media and mobile messengers are clearly no adequate substitute for a reliable personal cloud solution to store your most valuable data.

Wolves in sheep-shaped clouds

Not only Facebook, also the other GAFAM companies Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft have been investing a lot to make users upload files to their cloud servers. Google, Microsoft and Apple have each designed their cloud as a central part of their operating systems. This can be seen in any new smartphone or notebook installation that strongly encourages you to set up Google Photos for automatic phone camera uploads, or to use OneDrive or iCloud for saving all computer files.

Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, announced this September that it would investigate specifically the position of the tech giants in the cloud services market. The authority recognises cloud as a critical component for the delivery of digital services and its central role in the effective communication regulation. The proclaimed goal of the Ofcom’s market study is to understand how the cloud market functions, and if it functions well for consumers.

The scepticism of whether Google or Microsoft, especially in the light of their market dominance, actually provide the best cloud solutions for consumers can also be recognised in the European Union’s (EU) recent regulation initiative of the Data Act. The European regulators deem the existing options for consumers to move their cloud data from one service to another far from ideal.

Struggle for data privacy

As soon as you upload any data to one of the US-based cloud services, a different data protection regime will apply. Storing personal data outside the jurisdiction of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) or its UK equivalent, seriously erodes the data privacy. By US federal law, enforcement agencies can currently request US companies to pass user data to them, irrespective of whether it is being stored within the US or not. The user in the UK or the EU receives no formal warning that a foreign country’s authorities can access their data, without even specifying a reason, not to mention that absolutely no permission is being requested from the user.

The EU Commission, the US and the UK governments are currently struggling to find a new solution for how companies can legally transfer personal data across European and UK boarders to the United States. The former Privacy Shield mechanism was declared illegal by the European Court of Justice in 2020. The new Trans-Atlantic Data Privacy Framework (TADPF) now depends on the Executive Order (EO) issued by President Biden in October. This Executive Order imposes some new restrictions on US intelligence activities, and offers British and the EU citizens the possibility to call the newly-established “Data Protection Review Court.” (DPRC) to investigate and resolve complaints regarding access to their data by US national security authorities. However, there is not a lot of optimism that this can somehow close the fundamental gap between the European and the US-American understanding of real data protection. Even if the UK government and the EU Commission decide that the new terms are meeting the high GDPR standards, the new framework will probably be challenged and overruled by courts yet again.

Solution in the phone settings

Clearly, there is a very bright future for the personal cloud as a consumer application. There is simply no other kind of data storage that can provide such flexibility and convenience. But as internet users upload more and more of their most personal and sensitive data, the issue of data protection and safety becomes even more significant. Relying on the next available solution is not always the wisest choice, and consumers need real European and UK alternatives to what the US companies have to offer.

Fortunately, regulators both in the UK and in the EU understand that the cloud is too important to allow the GAFAM companies to further expand their already existing dominance in this market. In the meantime, consumers need to actively decide what cloud solution they really want to rely on – and simply make changes in the settings of their smartphone or their computer.

Picture of Jan Oetjen
Jan Oetjen

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