14 September 2010

Hey, Apple, where is my cloud?

In keeping with my opinion that Cloud service providers will one day be required to specify geo-location of customer data, I decided to look through the web pages that describe Apple's MobileMe service.

MobileMe is a truly remarkable consumer cloud computing service. It syncs contacts database, calendar, etc, over multiple user devices. The data on your laptop, desktop, and iPhone all stay in perfect harmony with one another. It's been described as an "Exchange server for everyone". Cool.

But where, exactly, is this server for everyone?

The MobileMe advertising page is remarkably silent on this question, stating only that MobileMe is "your home base on the web". On the web? How can I have a home base on the web? The "web" is like "cyberspace" - it doesn't really exist as an item or as a place. It merely describes a medium - an agreed set of protocols for sharing information. Data is stored, transmitted, routed, and received on physical computers in physical space.

So where are the servers? I thought I'd have a look at the MobileMe Terms of Service (TOS) document (January 14, 2010 edition) for clues. Nothing jumped out immediately, although Clause 4 concerning privacy includes this intriguing statement: "You further understand and agree that this information may be transferred to the United States and/or other countries for storage, processing and use by Apple and/or its affiliates."

But does this answer my question? What does Apple mean when they say "this information"? What information? Looking at the TOS language more closely, it seems that this phrase might refer only to "information about you and your use of the Service", "information related to your account, and any devices registered thereunder", and "technical or diagnostic information related to your use". In other words, who are you, where are you, and how do you use the service. But it's not really clear that this includes the substantive data: the list of names in your contacts database, names and places of appointments on your calendar, etc.

Apple does not make clear where, exactly, your "home on the web" is geo-located.

So this leads to a problem. For various reasons, I as a consumer might want to know where my "home on the web" is actually located. I might have business or personal reasons why I want my data geo-located only in Country A or only in Country B. Perhaps I want to be able to say that my data can be geo-located anywhere EXCEPT Country X and Country Y.

European data protection laws, for example, suggest that I might need to know where in the world this data is being processed. As of today, a customer of MobileMe doesn't know the answer to that basic question.

Prediction: One day MobileMe and similar consumer service offerings will be required to specify and restrict the geo-location of stored customer data. If Apple (and others) are clever, they will first offer this as a "value add service". The consumer may be given a screen that allows them to specify "Where do you want your cloud? Select from the drop-down menu of territories." I suspect that the wiser business decision would instead be for Apple to offer a binary choice: "Do you want your data geo-located only in your home territory? Y/N." Eventually I suspect that such service providers will be required by regulation to restrict the geo-location of stored data. Most states imposing such rules will probably restrict customer data storage to the customer's home territory.