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Looking at the cloud from both sides now

You may have been too busy during this holiday season to notice, but while your back was turned a little bit of the cloud started to go away.

I refer to Delicious, an online bookmarking service that was acquired by Yahoo for a reported $15 million-plus in 2005, during the heady early days of social networking.

Shortly before Christmas, word leaked out that Yahoo was contemplating shutting down Delicious. Yahoo subsequently clarified that it intends to put the service up for sale, but many of its fans believe its days are numbered.

In the view of Dan Gillmor, a media and technology journalist now teaching at Arizona State University, Yahoo’s plans underscore how vulnerable we are to the whims of big companies when we entrust them with our digital lives.

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That’s especially important, he says, with social media, to which users entrust not only their data but their relationships, such as lists of friends and acquaintances. “You might keep a copy of your data,” he told me, “but only the company has access to the web of relationships” you’ve created online.

This is a troubling aspect of what’s known as the “cloud” — you can render your personal and commercial data accessible from almost anywhere in the world by storing it online, but that requires ceding a certain amount of control. The benefits of doing so are great, but the costs, as devotees of Delicious are learning, are imponderable.

If it’s true, as Amazon.com claims, that the Kindle became its best-selling product ever during this holiday season, millions more customers are just now becoming familiar with the pluses and minuses of living in the digital cloud, because that’s where the e-books originate.

We’re more dependent on the cloud every day. I know I am. Some of my personal information is on Facebook, which can do with it Lord knows what. I back up my most mission-critical computer files by uploading them electronically to a service that parks them on servers that are physically hundreds of miles from me, and electronically as near as my Wi-Fi router.

Many of the 41 books or book collections I’ve acquired for my Kindle don’t reside anywhere in my house. They’re archived in Amazon’s files — or rather, that’s where the purchase record resides. If I want to read or reread something I’ve paid for, theoretically Amazon’s database will know I’m entitled and beam it down.

But who’s to say how long Amazon will choose to maintain that database? What if the company decides to cut costs or goes out of business? And don’t tell me that can’t happen: Many once-dominant brand names have disappeared or faded into obscurity. Remember Howard Johnson’s? Pan Am? Remember when Yahoo was the biggest name in search engines?

There is no easy way to reduce my dependence on Amazon. I can archive versions of my Kindle books on my home computer. But to have full use of them I have to archive separate versions for every device on which I might want to read them, because each version is digitally tied to one specific piece of hardware. (If there’s a hacker out there who’s figured out how to break the machine-specific coding, raise your hand.)

I recognize that one can’t “own” a Kindle book any more than one can own a cat. One can only “license” the book — on terms that are part of a 2,000-word user agreement. The agreement allows a licensee to keep a permanent copy of the book and view it an unlimited number of times. But it also encrusts every book with restrictions on what else can be done with it, including how many reading devices it can be installed on at a time.

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These restrictions only proliferate. In a famous example, the terms of use of a digital version of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” included: “This book cannot be read aloud.” The digital publisher also tried to limit how many pages of the text a user could print in a given time period. The author’s copyright on “Alice,” it should be noted, expired in 1907.

The copyright morass led Amazon into a celebrated misstep last year, when it discovered that it had sold unauthorized electronic versions of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984.” Its solution was to retrieve the e-books from customers’ Kindles without their knowledge, much less their permission. That was such a blatant violation of the implicit understanding between retailer and customer — once something’s bought, it should stay bought — that Amazon promised never to do anything like it again.

Trade-offs permeate all of digital technology. Consider the digital archiving of cultural artifacts. The library of the University of Michigan could burn down to its foundations, but that would affect only its physical copy of Joseph Christmas Ives’ journal of his 1857 expedition up the Colorado River; the text would live on in facsimile form because it has been digitized and can be found online.

Yet the limitations of the technology also are obvious. Anyone with at least one functioning eyeball can read the Ives journal on paper (assuming you can get to a library with a copy). To read it online, you have to have a computer with a compatible browser and display — and there is the chance that someday the digital format will become incompatible with contemporary reading hardware.

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Society plainly is just starting to balance the pros and cons of the new digital reality. A federal judge in New York has spent 10 months pondering the terms of the so-called Google Book Settlement and has yet to issue a ruling. The 165-page document aims to balance the rights of authors, publishers, libraries and Google, which has undertaken a massive effort to convert the books held in many research libraries (and often accessible there, gratis) to digital form. Google naturally expects to profit from making some of those works available.

The permanence of digitally archived material presents novel issues. The University of Maryland went to court to preserve a collection of material belonging to the Silicon Valley law firm Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, which failed in 2003. The records from the firm’s work for thousands of start-ups and investors documented the rise of the dot-com era in compact, accessible form, but much of it was legally sensitive. The university has been authorized to create a special archive open only to qualified researchers.

“We’re trying to demonstrate that you can curate sensitive information in the public interest but not in the public domain,” says David Kirsch, a Maryland business professor overseeing the work.

But the issues are just beginning to make themselves known. Digitizing our lives and our culture opens a whole new world of convenience, but it doesn’t come for free. “You lose a lot,” says Gillmor. “I’d like to see people become more aware of what may be at stake.”

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Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.


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