September 18, 2013

The Uncertain Future of the Global Cloud

Written by

The internet and the spread of globalization go hand in hand. Technology crosses borders, which has made open access to the world’s information a reality of the digital era. Services like Bitcoin imply that one day in the (very) near future, the distinctions on maps will have little impact over when, where, and how we conduct everyday things like financial transactions or research. The recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s extensive spy programs, however, threaten not only to undermine this vision, but to shatter it entirely. Even if the global cloud withstands the impact, US companies run the risk of losing tens of billions of dollars as a result.

PrintThe web wasn’t specifically designed to overstep borders and country lines; it simply grew up that way. This evolution was made possible mostly through the technical prowess of the West. The United States’ unrivaled web infrastructure provided a centralized location for much of the world’s data to pass through. US companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple handle an enormous amount of data that originates from all around the globe.

The US has long been considered an impartial party for handling the majority of the world’s bandwidth. In December of 2012, the House passed S. Con Res 50 which stated that the Internet should “remain stable, secure, and free from government control.” Although it was a comforting outward declaration, there were plenty of secrets under the hood. The recent knowledge of widespread NSA surveillance has removed the veil of neutrality from America’s internet domination. The sheer amount of data being routed through US servers is what makes a surveillance program like Prism possible1. It’s also what other countries and companies are most likely to revolt against.

One of the most concerning possibilities is that foreign countries – particularly smaller ones with limited resources – could use the recent revelations to cut themselves off from the global internet. While some countries may choose to do this out of legitimate concern for the privacy of their citizens (Estonia’s prime minister recently called for such action2), less benevolent leaders have been handed an excuse to exercise even greater control over their countries communications. Many of these countries won’t have the proper resources to set up true cloud infrastructure, or may not even try. In the end, they’ll only hurt their own citizens, who will become walled off from global information, and financial networks.

Moreover, the result of the NSA’s regulations on companies such as Facebook and Google is highly unclear. ExtremeTech posed the question: what might happen if Europe decided they didn’t want their citizens communications routed through US servers?3 Most likely, Google would have to host European-to-European communications on servers overseas, while European-to-American communications would still come through the US.

But what about a country that decides they don’t want their data going through the US at all? Well, one scenario is to decide that data should stay within borders and that taking away access to US services like Google is justifiable cost. It’s a hypothetical situation, and most likely a far fetched one, but as every passing week seems to bring to light new revelations about the NSA’s programs, it may be an increasingly probable one. Even if foreign companies simply turn away from American web service providers – such as Amazon Web Services – the financial losses could total up to $35 billion over the next three years.4

Although there is no way to fully anticipate the long term effects that Prism will have on the cloud, changes are eminent. Hopefully the future for the global cloud is alive and well but these privacy concerns could cause serious setbacks.


Authors: Cameron Graham & Kyle Turco


1. Prism Works Because a Ton of Data Moves Through US Servers -The Washington Post Switch Blog

2. Cyber-savvy Estonia Urges EU to Rely Less on US ‘Clouds’ –

3. The NSA’s Prism leak could fundamentally change or break the entire internet – ExtremeTech

4. NSA Snooping Could Cost U.S. Tech Companies $35 Billion over Three Years – The Washington Post Switch Blog