A Pew Internet & American Life study shows almost 70 percent of Internet-using Americans use cloud computing even though many don't know what the term means. More than half of online Americans use Webmail services like Microsoft's Hotmail, Google's Gmail and Yahoo e-mail in addition to storing photos, videos and data in the cloud. While privacy and security issues are a concern, Internet users are flocking to cloud computing because it is easy and convenient, Pew says.
WASHINGTON-Whether they know
it or not, American Internet users' heads are in the clouds. According to a new
Pew Internet & American Life survey, almost 70 percent of Americans with
Internet access use Webmail services, store data, photos and videos online, or
use software programs such as word processing and spreadsheet applications with
functionality located on the Web.
"Webmail is the starter drug, so to speak," John Horrigan, Pew's
associate director of research, said at a Sept. 12 conference at Google's Washington
headquarters here. "A lot people said they value the cloud for the ease of
sharing information with others, so that social nature of the Internet really
informs the use of cloud applications."
Users also value their privacy. Despite the rapidly escalating use of cloud
computing by consumers, Horrigan said the Pew survey found that 68 percent of
people using cloud services would be "very concerned" if companies
like Google, Microsoft or Yahoo used their stored data to match their interests
with advertising or shared or made public their online files.
"People are very obviously making trade-offs in privacy when they
engage in these behaviors. That means that people are weighing the pluses and
minuses, often in very situational and subtle ways," Horrigan said.
Horrigan stressed that the survey was not intended to be a comprehensive
overview of cloud computing but a snapshot of a select set of activities of
typical PC users. The activities included using Webmail, online storage of
data, photos and videos, use of online apps such as Google Docs or Adobe
Photoshop, and online backup storage.
Overall, the study found that 69 percent of users have either stored data
online or used a Web-based application. Webmail services dominated the
responses (56 percent), followed by online storage of photos (34 percent),
online apps (29 percent), video storage (7 percent), paid storage (5 percent)
and hard drive backup services (5 percent).
Predicting that cloud computing will become "as important as the Web
was 15 years ago," Mike Nelson, a visiting professor at Georgetown
University and a former technology policy advisor for President Bill Clinton,
said, "Cloud computing is going to transform computing, and not in 10
years but four or five years."
The rapid move to cloud computing, Nelson said, raises important policy
"We have to start thinking right now about how organizations and
individuals adopt this technology and how policymakers and, perhaps, outdated
policies, meet a new reality," Nelson said.
A starting point for policy discussions might be the Pew survey. The results
show 90 percent of respondents would be "very concerned" if a cloud
computing company sold files to others without express permission. Other strong
concerns included using photos and other information in marketing campaigns (80
percent) and analyzing stored data for unwanted targeted advertising (68
Survey respondents also had concerns about companies keeping copies of
online files even after consumers delete the files (63 percent) and the ability
of law enforcement officials to access the files (49 percent).
"Consumers expect their information will be treated the same on the
cloud as it is if it were stored at home on their own computers," said Ari
Schwartz, vice president and chief operating officer of the Center for
Democracy & Technology. "That seems to be a tall order to ask, but
that is what they expect."
That would, indeed, be a very tall order for Washington,
"I do think government has an almost infinite
ability to screw up things when they can't see the future," he said.
"We have to have leadership that believes in empowering users and