Do you have a Yahoo e-mail account? Maybe a Gmail account? Do you put up pictures on Flickr? Perhaps you've started keeping your schedule online. If so, then you are using cloud computing — that's what tech companies call it when people work and store information on the Internet.
Because it enables users to access their documents anywhere, cloud computing is very convenient. But it's also creating a whole new set of worries.
Abel Habtegeorgis, 23, learned recently how it can all go wrong. Habtegeorgis is pretty typical for someone his age; he stores the most important documents of his life — from family photos to conversations with his mother — online using Gmail and Flickr.
"It's easier in a lot of ways," says Habtegeorgis. "It's so amazing to have access to so many pictures and everything. Pretty much my life is up there."
Until it wasn't: One day, Habtegeorgis typed in his password and found that it didn't work.
"I type [the password] again and again and again, and I realize something is wrong with the company itself or the server or the e-mail account," he says.
Habtegeorgis couldn't get to his photos of his nephew. He tried to reach someone at Google, but couldn't. Suddenly, he realized that he had no idea what kinds of rights he had over those e-mails, because he never did read that user agreement when he signed up.
"Nobody reads the user agreements," he says with a laugh. "You don't read that 90-page document."
(After NPR mentioned his problem to Google, Habtegeorgis finally got back into his account. The company says there was some sort of security issue.)
Business On The Cloud
Habtegeorgis isn't alone in his reliance on the cloud; Yahoo alone boasted 261 million active e-mail users in the month of June, and the company's photo sharing site, Flickr, reports that it hosts 2.5 billion photographs.
Increasingly, Internet companies are offering online services that appeal not just to individuals, but also to businesses. Samantha Sullivan is part of Scary Cow, a small film company in the San Francisco Bay Area. The company can't afford its own offices, so everyone works from home with help from Google's growing number of Internet applications, including online schedules for setting up meetings, shared spreadsheets for budgets, and Google documents for script collaboration.
The applications allow the employees to work together in real time. But despite the fact that her company stores crucial documents — including scripts, video footage and working documents — online, Sullivan laughingly admits to never having read the user agreement.
Harry Lewis, a computer science professor at Harvard, says what's in those agreements may turn out to be no laughing matter. He warns that most online companies reserve the right to shut users down if they are accused of storing something illegal — whether or not the accusation is justified.
"If it's easier for them to just kill your account than it is to fight back against this complaint ... they might just find it easier to make you go away," Lewis says.
Lewis says that part of the problem is that there aren't any rules governing life on the cloud.
"We're all kind of used to the idea that if you don't pay your telephone bill, you know they're not going to shut off your phone while you're off on vacation. There are laws about how quickly they can shut off your telephone service," he says. "But [for] your cloud storage service, there's no rules."
The contents of the user agreement that most people don't read can be surprising. For example, when you put up your Facebook page, you pretty much give the company the right to do whatever they want with it. According to the user agreement, Facebook can "use, copy, publicly display, publicly perform, reformat, excerpt and distribute it."
The March Toward The Cloud
Despite potential problems, tech companies see consumers inevitably marching towards cloud computing. Several companies, including Hewlett Packard, are making cheap portable notebook computers with small hard drives that will rely on the cloud for storage. Microsoft, Amazon and Apple now all provide online services.
Sam Schillace, part of the team designing online applications at Google, waxes on enthusiastically about the convenience it provides.
"The data's always where you can find it," he says. "Your laptop crashes, the hard disc gets erased — your data's still fine."
Life on the cloud can be wonderful — except when it's not. Recently, 20,000 paying customers of a small cloud storage company called Linkup lost large amounts of information when the company shut down. But for most companies, Schillace says, cloud computing is too important to mess up.
"It's something we have to get right, or the model won't actually work," he says. "It's got to be your data that follows you around when you give your credentials to a Web site. You've got to be able to do what you want to do with your data on that Web site."
As we turn on our BlackBerrys, iPhones and laptops and expect the convenience of having our information anywhere we are, cloud computing seems unstoppable. Just be sure to read that user agreement before you click the "accept" button.