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Ex-FCC chair vows government control over the Google Brain

Wrapping the cloud in red tape

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The Cloud Computing Revolution will be regulated, according to former Federal Communications Chairman (FCC) Reed Hundt.

Hundt - who has mounted many a soapbox - is using a review of pundit Nick Carr's new book The Big Switch as an excuse for laying out some cloud computing concerns. Should large, centralized computing utilities appear, as Carr promises, then the government will step in and regulate the bit shifting centers, Hundt says. And, in fact, it may be the next administration that first tackles such issues.

While often presented as new, utility or cloud computing is actually one of the older computing traditions. In the times of the dinosaurs, trilobites and Dick Clark, people would share large mainframe-type machines. Thanks to advances in computing horsepower and networking, this approach seems to be gaining momentum again with people tapping into distant data centers to store files, run business software and crank through very large jobs.

Carr argues that the computing industry will follow the lead of the electricity industry with just a few players managing these huge data hubs. Rather than setting up your own power or computing systems, it makes more financial sense to plug into a centralized store, so that you benefit from expertise, scale and a methodical management of resources.

The thrill of embracing utility computing has proved so popular that rather dim hacks now present the idea as gospel. We're told that Google, IBM, Amazon.com and a couple of other players will soon rule the world via just a handful of computing and storage centers.

The shift to a utility model - if it happens - will bring with it some unpleasant surprises, according to Carr. People, for example, may enjoy the illusion that they're participating in a populist wonderland through something like YouTube, but, in fact, they're simply feeding more knowledge into a giant, ad-driven brain owned by Google. A lucky few will get rich off the dancing cat videos of the many, while companies such as Google and Microsoft hoard clicks from their various web properties in an effort to understand what you need to buy next or remember better than you do.

Should such a grim future really take hold - hasn't it started already? - then the government will certainly step in and lend a guiding hand, according to Hundt.

In a piece for Democracy, he writes,

If, in fact, the universal grid has the draconian effects on income (as opposed to wealth, if I understand him correctly) distribution, it is still more likely that the distribution of computing, like the distribution of electricity, will end up regulated like electricity and telephony before it with the aim of providing an affordable service to everyone in America, while assuring the providers of the service enough profit to maintain their networks.

The other possibility is that Carr’s vision is wrong, or at least wrong for so many years that it need not generate policy discussion now. Either way, what is almost certain, is that the next administration will assign some blame for increasing income inequality (and perhaps wealth disparity) and will undertake some efforts at rebalancing across the whole population. The era of big government may be over for welfare grants to the poor in the bottom quartile of the income ranks, but it is only just beginning in its twenty-first century version for the second, third, and fourth quartiles.

And on the social front.

But Carr goes further and sees this new global grid not just as an economic threat, but as a societal one, producing "[c]ultural impoverishment and social fragmentation" instead of "greater harmony and understanding." As a result, "compromise" and "consensus-building" (which are "at the heart of democratic government") become harder to come by. In other words, the global grid may topple our republic.

Here Carr is skating on intellectually thin ice. There’s much evidence that science is advancing at a much faster rate because of the Internet’s rapid aggregation of knowledge and dissemination of information. If he means by "culture" a web of beliefs and values, the Internet almost certainly creates a tighter and broader web that reifies and strengthens culture. Carr could summon some proof that social networks of the Web 2.0 are less compromise-ridden than, say, the audiences for broadcast television in the 1950s and 1960s.

But faction, opinion, debate, and resolution by voting are the building blocks of democracy, whereas "compromise" per se is not necessarily the same as majority rule. In any case, if Carr is right, again government action is likely. It is hard to imagine that those who gain power from government positions, namely Congress, will not tinker with the Internet if it in fact threatens their ability to obtain the consent of the governed.

Hundt closes by claiming that Carr's book - wrong or right - will trigger a much needed public debate about how much regulation the "Internet’s next phase of evolution" needs.

This is a natural position for a former FCC chief to take. Hundt seems almost desperate to pull the Feds into utility computing, claiming they can somehow help us avoid social ills.

We wonder, though, how much effect the government can really have on Google or Microsoft's attempts to read every word we type in an effort to move more toasters from the Shanghai loading docks via ads.

The power with utility computing seems to come less from the actual computing element - servers, storage and switches - and more from the databases attached to them. This is quite a different scenario than we find with the electricity industry or even the telecommunications industry. The databases of the technology companies stretch farther and dig deeper.

The government could step in to ensure that our information can travel with us from provider to provider. You can leave the Google Machine and head over to IBM's grid. Or perhaps stronger anonymity controls could be foisted upon the service providers.

But so what? Under Carr's terms, discussed at length here, it's the ever enriching sustenance that we provide the network which is the potential problem - or blessing, if you're of that mind. The government will have little interest in or opportunity to stop that information flow.

Anyway - cough - you can catch Carr's response to Hundt here. The chaps seem to be talking past each other quite a bit at the moment, but the dialog, as Hundt says has started. ®

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