27th April 2012
The launch of Google Drive, the web giant's cloud storage offering that will enable users to upload and share content comes at a crucial point in the great debate about who can "legitimately" play host in the online repository game and what content can be "legitimately" held within.
April 26, two days after Drive's launch, lawyers met in Virginia discuss what should happen to the 25 petabytes of allegedly pirated content – ebooks, movies, music – seized from the servers of now defunct file-sharing site MegaUpload, shut down on January 19th. Its flamboyant founder Kim Dotcom aka Schmitz was arrested (and later bailed) in New Zealand, personal assets worth $17million were impounded and $39 million worth of the Hong Kong based company's assets were frozen.
Megaupload.com basically served as a ‘cyberlocker' service for retaining and sharing content, in return for fees that made the company millions after its 2005 launch. With Google Drive, according to the post on Google's Official Blog by Sundar Pichai, Senior Vice President, Chrome & Apps: "You can upload and access all of your files, including videos, photos, Google Docs, PDFs and beyond."
How different is Google Drive to previous 'cyberlockers'?
So how, in principle, are Google Drive, Microsoft's SkyDrive, Apple's iCloud and Dropbox any different to Megaupload in what they offer the user and enable them to do? On the weekend before Megaupload was shutdown in January, one particularly prominent media and film mogul accused Google of aiding and abetting online piracy. News Corp (and its 20th Century Fox) boss Rupert Murdoch, having joined Twitter earlier that month, let it be known with the required brevity that he thought "Piracy leader is Google who streams movies free, sells advts around them. No wonder pouring millions into lobbying."
ZDNet's Rupert Goodwins hits it bang on the head when he points out that enabling users to upload data to the cloud and then share it simply by passing on a URL or other link is "only one step away from services like Megaupload… While Dropbox and others are committed to following the law and supporting action against copyright infringers, their business models depend on people getting quick access to shared resources, making it hard to trace those intent on covering their tracks. And a small amount of encryption will defeat any automated checks for infringing files, at least in the short term."
Murdoch's Twitter outbursts aside, suggestions that Google might be ‘the pirates' friend are not new, from time to time being accused of favouring illegal download sites over legal ones within its search rankings, guiding the user to "pirate" destinations in effect. Although this is arguably because illegal sites tend to optimise themselves better for the search engine's (algorithmically determined) higher rankings than legal sites like iTunes and Amazon, who do not necessarily use "mp3" and "mp4" as key search words, for instance.
Google Drive blocked in China
Content proprietors and both the U.K. and U.S governments have been vocal in asking search engines not to link to such sites: in the latter, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) – which Google among others, opposes – is their weapon to try and protect intellectual property and force web businesses to sever links to "infringing" sites.
Google Drive has already been blocked from China – (joining rival Dropbox on the banned online storage provider list) more likely because of its currently frosty relations than for the product per se. Meanwhile Apple's iCloud and Microsoft's SkyDrive continue to mix it with local offerings, free of restrictions – for now.
How much responsibility legitimate online search or storage companies should take for the location of supposedly pirated content on the web is a moot point.
A silver lining for investors
But what it points to is that this nascent era of ‘the cloud' is a truly nebulous place to be an investor at this stage. One will need to look beyond what initially appears to be a proverbial silver lining – Gartner does estimate consumer content in the cloud to grow from 7 per cent in 2011 to 36 per cent by 2016, the need to share content and access it on multiple devices being a particular driver – and be mindful of the potentially bumpy (and costly) confrontations with governments and content proprietors alike.
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