The Wikileaks disclosure of hundreds of U.S. diplomatic cables dominated news coverage last week as governments struggled to respond to public disclosure of sensitive, secret information. One of the most noteworthy developments was Amazon’s decision to abruptly stop hosting the Wikileaks site hours after U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman exerted political pressure on the company to do so.
Amazon is best known for its e-commerce site, yet it is also one of the world’s leading cloud computing providers, offering instant website hosting to thousands of companies and websites. In recent years, the combination of massive computer server farms in remote locations and high speed networks have enabled cloud computing to emerge as a critical mechanism for offering online services and delivering Internet content.
After Amazon pulled the plug, Wikileaks quickly shifted to a European host, demonstrating how easily sites can shift from one cloud provider to another. Although it seems counter-intuitive to consider the physical location of cloud computing equipment when discussing services that by their very definition operate across borders in the â€œcloudâ€, the Wikileaks-Amazon incident provided an important reminder that location matters when it comes to cloud computing.
The notion of cloud forum shopping is relatively new, but likely to become more important as legal rules have a direct effect on cloud services and public confidence in them. Interestingly, Canada is well-positioned to emerge as a cloud computing leader in a world where service providers compete at least in part on regulatory frameworks.
Cloud computing offers many advantages, yet since some consumers and business executives remain wary of the privacy and security implications of storing personal information in unseen computer server farms, confidence in the cloud computing model is directly linked to assurances that real-space privacy protections continue to function in the cloud.
Canadian leadership in this area is evident in several respects. Privacy Commissioner of Canada Jennifer Stoddart and Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian have been ahead of the curve on the issue with reports on the privacy implications of cloud computing.
Their analysis concludes that the Canadian privacy law framework is applicable regardless of the technology, importing accountability requirements to cloud providers. So long as the data is collected or stored in Canada, privacy regulators can exercise jurisdiction over their operations. Forthcoming regulations on mandatory security breach reporting requirements could also help position Canada as a cloud leader, since the new rules would provide greater transparency on the security of personal data stored in the cloud.
Canada’s cloud computing advantage may extend beyond its privacy laws. There are also important environmental advantages that come with basing cloud computing server farms in the Canadian north. These include easy access to clean energy sources such as wind and geo-thermal energy and, given the colder climate, decreased energy requirements to cool the computer server farms. Once high-speed, optical networks that run north â€“ south between the Canadian arctic and the major Canadian urban centres are added to the mix, there is the potential to run large networks that use minimal energy and have the power to instantly transfer huge amounts of data.
Positioning Canada as a cloud computing leader has not emerged as a focal point of the digital economy strategy, yet it offers the chance to provide Canadians with greater assurances of the privacy and security of their data once it is transferred to the cloud, while attracting new technology businesses who may see Canada as an attractive location from which to base their global cloud computing operations.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.