The EU commission has announced a long-awaited strategy on cloud computing. Neelie Kroes, vice president for the Digital Agenda, tells DW why Europe should take a leading role.
DW: This is a major announcement for the European Commission and technologically speaking the benefits of cloud computing are clear to many - perhaps not everybody but many - and you want Europe to be at the forefront of development in this area. Why?
Neelie Kroes: Two reasons: the main thing is the economy. We are pushing economic growth and jobs. The economic benefits are much bigger through pan-European action, so we are talking about 160 billion euros per year. That means, per person, per year, that is 300 euros ($386). So, that's no "coffee money" and the fragmentation of today is reducing the benefits, so we indeed need to do it together to get the most out of it.
But it sounds very much like a business thing at the moment, doesn't it, I mean the business model is at the forefront …
(Interjects) …Yes, but there is nothing wrong with business and certainly not when it is delivering European citizens 300 euros per person, per year.
You've highlighted three main areas where you would like to see improvements, this is part of your strategy: uniform standards like interoperability, moving data between one service and another, then there's safe and fair contracts, and also the creation of a European Cloud partnership. Now, unfortunately we haven't got the time to go into detail on everything here. But it seems to me that this strategy highlights in itself a kind of disconnect - a disconnect between the firms - the providers of these services - and the consumers, let's say, over digital rights, control and access to digital property - and it's a disconnect which, it seems, you're unlikely to be able to resolve.
Well, it is not mature yet. So, having said that, we should take into account, indeed, the three issues that you are mentioning: it is getting the "jungle of technical standards" in line, so that there is interoperability, that there is data portability and that there is reversability. For that is why I want to be on the Cloud. And, if I'm fearing that it is not safe enough, then we as a Commission, all over Europe, have to take a position that we can prove that it is safe and it is fair. Also talking about the contracts…
(Interjects) Well, it is yet to be proved that it is actually safe, isn't it?
It is safe. It is safer than when you do it your own way. In most cases, though, you're not dealing with fair contract terms, and it's not interoperable…
You're talking about consumers potentially being locked in there, through their contract?
Right, because I wanted to pick up on one point there because you mentioned fair contracts, and I'd like to ask you, what if the European Union were to say to providers, "Here is the contract, the very contract you can use, and only this contract is standard." Could you do that?
No, no, no, no. That won't be the case.
And why not?
We also want competiveness. And looking at my first position in Brussels, it is about choice. I'm a great believer in competitiveness, so here we are, it should be a fair level playing field of players, and it should be clear, it should be transparent, I should know what is at stake and what I am picking out, and there should be the opportunity to change. So, if I'm not satisfied, I'm moving.
But it seems that if you leave the contracts in the hands of the companies, then they are going to control what happens there, and if we take for instance, Apple, looking into areas of privacy, they do something that a lot of companies don't do, and that is that they say they reserve the right to scan a user's digital content, they say, purportedly, they do it to look for copyright infringements or offensive or otherwise illegal material. To make the analogy, it seems wholly unfair because even the police in most jurisdictions need a warrant before they can search my home, or seize my computer. So, why can't we enforce this in an area like cloud computing?
No… but I'm not certain people want that. More demand means more reactive suppliers and that is at stake and then you will judge what they are offering you. So, that is a functioning market, so to say, and I'm a strong believer in that, but it should be transparent, too.
Okay, so we have this situation developing in Europe and across the world, of course, where we're being encouraged more and more to store things in the Cloud - perhaps not even download things in the first place. Take services like Spotify, or even the iTunes service, iTunes Match, that allows you to basically have all your music data, for instance, everywhere you go. And I wonder if we are seeing - by stealth - a complete revision of ownership rules as we've known them in the past. Perhaps in future companies will say you can buy this, but essentially all you are doing is paying a lifelong subscription to something you can never hold in your hands, like a book that I can pass onto family members or friends and do with what I like. It will be up in the Cloud and I will never store it on my own hard drive, that's why I think [companies] may be wanting to control digital content, let's say for reasons of copyright. Do you not see that happening?
Well, talking about copyright, we badly need a review of the copyright, but that's no news. Certainly when we are talking about storing in the Cloud, then it is still up to you if you still want to buy a printed book. So, it is absolutely not a bad thing to do it like this, if there is choice. But that will make a lot of sense, people are getting news that they are able to use it everywhere for their Cloud, and what I am saying is my locker in the Cloud is mine, I have the key and I can use it for every device I want to use it and that is a big step forward.
But it's usually limited: if I bought something, I couldn't necessarily give it to my wife or pass it onto my children. I couldn't say, "Here, read this book," because it has to be authorized to be used on my computer only. This is something the providers are controlling right now. And the reason I am presenting this is because your strategy is a forward looking one, isn't it? We need to future-proof this.
Yes, it is. It is by the way cheaper for you. So, if you say, "This is a great book or great piece of music, or whatever, and my wife should have this," then give her her own Cloud.
But then I might be put in the situation where I might have to buy it again.
Then it's your wife's property. But, all in all, I am absolutely certain that the market will also solve this part of the problem that there is an opportunity where if you are paying a little bit more, then it can also be used as a copy for your wife.
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It seems, though, that the incentives that you have spoken about in the past, but also in this strategy paper, are more geared towards the companies - because, of course, you see this as a generator of wealth and business in Europe and the world - but these incentives are often found to be incompatible with consumer rights, aren't they?
No, no, no. That I don't agree. It is an absolutely positive development for all of us, it is not only for businesses and it's not only for consumers. It is for governments and for all the companies that are interested in this development and are not old-fashioned, so to speak. It is a big privilege to have this type of market development prospects.
I don't think it's entirely all about being old-fashioned if you are not really in the Cloud. There are, as I'm sure as you are aware, some very important issues here concerning people's rights. But one thing, I wanted to…
I'm sorry to interrupt you, I'm not saying it is old-fashioned to not be in the Cloud, but what I'm saying is that the companies who are involved, but also government, should be aware of the big advantages, and that they shouldn't stick in what they did last century, but that time has gone on.
Absolutely, I agree, and…
… and it's up to you if you want a Cloud, yes, or no. I have a Cloud and I'm happy with that.
I use it as well, so we are all on the same page there, that's fantastic. Just finally, though, you've also highlighted as a positive thing this collaboration between CERN in Geneva, and the European Space Agency with their "Helix Nebular" Cloud collaboration. I mention this in context of your desire to see the creation of a European Cloud partnership, it sounds fantastic, but I would like to ask whether this is something that the European Union can actually muster at the moment?
Yes, why not? In my opinion this is made for total success. We have to combine our efforts. That is why I'm so impressed with what has been done in Europe already, especially in this field, it is a lot of interesting stuff that is at stake and we should unite and we should join and share it.
But surely if the priority should be nailing down the commercial aspects - say, in controlling the interests of the companies who will have a larger control over our lives if we continue to use the Cloud as we are at the moment - then we could nail down the legal stuff, and leave the rest to the private sector, could we not? Instead of having some kind of massive über-Cloud, so to speak?
Yeah, I get your point…
… which would be difficult to administer.
I get your point, but we are also talking about the public part that is at stake. So, I really think, and I will press and I will push that government and all the public services are also using this. That really makes sense and that is a lot of cost reduction and we are all interested in efficient and effective and less costly services also of the public part.
Interview: Zulfikar Abbany / jlw