With this hilarious Onion video about Cloud computing it makes an important point: everyone is talking about "Cloud computing" but it seems like few know what it is.
It's important to know what this shift in computing is and what it could mean for the future.
What is Cloud Computing?
For a time if someone wanted to host a website they would need to buy physical servers. If traffic increased it would mean adjusting to the traffic ad hoc by buying more servers. The obvious problem is for sites like Google or Amazon it requires massive amounts of servers that can't be maintained this way on any practical level.
In order to fix this came "Cloud" computing which essentially outsourced the problem; large remote server hubs or "clouds" managed by private companies would take the place of buying servers. In these clouds websites would automatically take up as many servers as needed and the charge for bandwidth usage would work like a meter. It essentially rents server space to websites.
The thing to remember is these server farms are completely remote and hidden from the people using them, managed by whoever owns the cloud. Ostensibly this gives the user the freedom to focus on whatever he or she is hosting but it also takes away control and ownership of the server.
The Cloud Dilemma
The problem with clouds is that many of the cloud providers are big companies like AT&T who of course have a history of collaborating with illegal government searches and share common interests against things like net neutrality.
There's also no real guarantee that these companies won't filter content or go through private data to accomplish their ends. Take a company like Dow Chemical, recently it was revealed that they hired the private firm Stratfor to spy on Bhopal activists; there have been no charges or calls for investigation.
While folks like Zizek might be a little off when claiming that clouds will privatize the internet (the internet already consists of many privately owned servers) what cloud computing will do is centralize it the hands of unaccountable corporations.
Indeed, the concept has spread from just servers to the entire personal experience, from private laptops to smartphones, every file someone has will thus be floating around in a cloud network. Thus the potential for harm will be huge.
Solutions and Alternatives
With the way things are, policy solutions are a long ways off but it is possible to create collaborative and secure clouds right now. There are efforts like the Tor project on Clouds or possibly even have clouds in foreign countries (specifically ones that aren't party to ACTA which the US signed but has not yet ratified).
Now obviously there is a potential for people using secure clouds in themselves for harmful purposes (money laundering etc.) but the importance of keeping a free society away from private control is much more important.
Indeed while Clouds are just a buzz word now, if we don't do anything the future with them 20 or 30 years from now might not look good.