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Tech experts see a 'cloudy' horizon in Washington

Tech experts say policy makers have a lot to learn about cloud computing before creating legislation to address public concerns, so they don't "screw up things."

WASHINGTON--Internet users have jumped head-first into the world of cloud computing, but both policy makers and the public have a lot to learn about it, tech experts said Friday.

Cloud computing will "transform how we do computing--and not in 10 years, but in four or five," said Mike Nelson, a visiting professor at Georgetown University's Center for Communication, Culture, and Technology and a former tech policy adviser under the Clinton administration. "This is going to change everything we do with computing, and there are lots of policy implications."

Nelson participated in a panel discussion of cloud computing hosted by Google on Friday. The discussion coincided with the release of a report by Pew Internet and American Life Project showing that 69 percent of Internet users have engaged in some form of "cloud computing" but most had high levels of concern about how their data on the cloud could be used.

"Most users understand enough" to feel comfortable with cloud computing, Nelson said, "but they don't understand what can happen to that information. There's a definite need for education in that area."

He said politicians needed to learn more about the implications of cloud computing as well, so they can "future proof" the new policies sure to be proposed in the near future. A whole host of issues are likely to be addressed, he said, from privacy and piracy to pornography and policing.

"The government has an almost unlimited capacity to screw up things," Nelson said. "We've got some huge challenges ahead of us."

"Cloud computing" refers to moving tasks typically handled by nearby PCs or servers--things like storage, software execution, and computation--to a remote server somewhere on the Internet. Cloud computing can refer to specific services on the Internet, such as photo editing, or to generic foundations, such as computing capacity.

Most Internet users engaging in cloud computing--56 percent of them--are using Web mail services like Hotmail, while 29 percent of Internet users have used online applications such as Adobe Photoshop Express or Google Documents, according to the Pew study. Forty percent of Internet users have engaged in cloud computing for at least two activities.

Despite the popularity of cloud computing, 90 percent of cloud application users said they would be very concerned if the company storing their data sold it to another party. Sixty-eight percent said they would be very concerned if their data were used for targeted advertising, and 49 percent said they would be very concerned if their data were given to law enforcement.

Pew Research Center

The high use of cloud applications combined with people's concerns shows "people use it more than they understand it," said John Horrigan, Pew's associate director for research.

Ari Schwartz, vice president and chief operating officer for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said there should be enough protections and privacy options for consumers online that "we should get to a point where it doesn't make a difference" how much users understand about the privacy risks of cloud computing.

"Consumers expect their information (on the cloud) to be treated as if it were stored on a home computer," Schwartz said.

He noted that once a user moves his data online, he loses the Constitutional rights he would have had over the data on a home computer.

"We hope that interpretation will change over time," he said.

Nelson said that with respect to cloud computing, "today we are about where we were in 1993 with the Web," but that "we need to be working on policy problems now."

"You have to have leadership that believes in empowering the user and the citizen," he said.