WASHINGTON -- Microsoft today made an emphatic pitch in the nation's capital urging Congress to enact legislation to support cloud computing, calling for a federal mandate to codify security and privacy protections for data stored on remote servers.
Here at the Brookings Institution think tank, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) General Counsel Brad Smith argued for the need to modernize the legal framework overseeing information technology to keep pace with the rapid migration to the cloud.
"In order to make the cloud a success, those of us in industry need to pursue new initiatives to address issues such as privacy and security," Smith said. "At the same time, the private sector cannot meet all of these challenges alone. We need Congress to modernize the laws, adapt them to the cloud, and adopt new measures to protect privacy and promote security."
Smith proposed what he called the Cloud Computing Advancement Act, a legislative package that would attempt to harmonize the legal system with the modern applications of technology and give the executive branch of the government the flexibility to adopt cloud-based systems. The law, as Smith outlined it, would address the privacy and security concerns associated with the cloud, while also clarifying the matter of international sovereignty to shield U.S. tech companies from legal action initiated by foreign governments.
On the privacy front, Smith argued that the public deserves the confidence to know that the government cannot snoop in their e-mail or photos simply because they are stored on remote servers. He proposed a set of "truth-in-cloud-computing principles" patterned after the truth-in-lending practices in place in the financial sector to give consumers confidence that data stored online will be secure.
"The rise of cloud computing should not lead to the demise of the privacy safeguards in the Bill of Rights," Smith said. He suggested that the Federal Trade Commission be granted the enforcement authority to oversee Internet privacy and security, endorsing the vision some advocacy groups have been pressing as they look ahead to Internet privacy legislation.
The legislation he envisions would also update security statutes to enable prosecutors to mount felony cases against hackers, while also establishing a framework for better cooperation between the public and private sectors.
Then internationally, Smith suggested the United States pursue a "multilateral framework" with other nations to establish a sense of legal stability for tech companies that maintain datacenters around the world, calling for a "free trade zone" for data packets.
"The world needs a safe and open cloud," Smith said.
Microsoft accompanied Smith's address with the release of a survey it commissioned in December probing people's attitudes about cloud computing.
Despite the near ubiquity of cloud-based technologies like Webmail and social networks, 76 percent of the survey respondents said they either hadn't heard the term "cloud computing" or had heard of it but didn't know what it meant.
"Despite the lack of familiarity with the term, most Americans already use technologies that constitute forms of cloud computing," Smith said.
In the same survey, 90 percent of respondents expressed concern about the privacy and security of their personal information on the Internet.
Microsoft has been working with the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington digital-rights group, to craft a legal framework to modernize federal privacy and security laws.
Smith spoke of the immense benefits cloud-based technologies could yield for some of the big-picture social challenges the administration is confronting. Cloud systems could streamline health care and expand educational opportunities, all the while priming the pump of the economy by enabling small businesses to operate more efficiently, he said.
In the federal government, far and away the largest single purchaser of IT equipment, a shift to cloud computing could net tremendous cost savings by phasing out siloed datacenters and redundant or legacy systems. That opportunity of course has not been lost on the administration.
In September, the Obama administration unveiled Apps.gov, an online store for federal IT managers to browse the cloud-based products offered by firms in the private sector.
The law that Smith today proposed would help expedite that transition.
"We need to build confidence in the cloud," Smith said. "And that requires a new conversation about the opportunity ... for industry and government each to take new steps to move forward."