Who owns your stuff in the cloud?


As more people look to the cloud for digital storage, such as the recently unveiled Google Drive, the era of being able to mindlessly click “OK” or “Agree” may be over.

When your stuff is stored on your computer at home, you alone are responsible for keeping it safe, secure and backed up. Your roof, your rules. But when you shift from local storage to remote, you live by terms set by someone else — and it’s best to read them.

This is true for any cloud service, not just Google’s.

First, there are two sets of word-dense documents you need to read before marrying yourself to a cloud-service: the privacy policy and the terms of service. Yes, the words will bleed together from all the legal jargon, but they’re important.

Every service has its own terms, and what’s in there and how it’s written vary widely.

Remember that when you upload content, you are essentially publishing it — even if it’s just for your eyes. For any cloud service to work as designed, you give the service permission to store and make copies of the content you upload — that’s how your stuff ends up everywhere you want it. The cloud copy is the master.

Google, for instance, clearly states in its terms of service that apply to all things Google: “You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours.”

But where the Google policy may read a bit murky is what you entitle Google to do with your stuff: “When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.”

And that permission continues even if you stop using the services, according to the contract.

Google issued a statement, explaining why it, or for that matter others such as SkyDrive or SugarSync, would need to spell out its rights with your content. “Our Terms of Service enable us to give you the services you want — so if you decide to share a document with someone, or open it on a different device, you can.”

Competing cloud service Dropbox makes no claims to user content. “You retain full ownership to your stuff,” the terms of service read. “We don’t claim any ownership to any of it. These Terms do not grant us any rights to your stuff or intellectual property except for the limited rights that are needed to run the Services.”

I’ve read and reread terms and privacy policies from SugarSync and another service called Box, and they don’t seem to make mention of ownership of your content.

And what about someone else, such as law enforcement, trying to access your stuff? With a computer in your home, you’d have to be served a warrant for legal access to your hard drive. But with remote storage, you may not know whether a subpoena or warrant has been served on the cloud service provider, depending on what the company says it will do in the terms of service.

One thing is certain: These services are likely to become more and more integral to how we live our digital lives. The companies will need to prove themselves trustworthy as we bank our bits and bytes with them.

“All this comes back down to trust,” said Frank Gillette, an analyst at Forrester Research. “These organizations, like banks, have to convince people they are trustworthy.”

Unlike banks, however, there is no insurance for the security — and replacement — of our digital stuff. Although nearly every provider’s terms read differently, one thing remains the same. They all tell you explicitly they are not responsible for any loss you experience.

So before jumping on the cloud bandwagon, you might want to figure out how to back yourself up if your stuff should dissipate like an actual cloud in the sky.