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 questions.
"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 percent).
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, Nelson said.
"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 empowering citizens."