Get Out of the Cloud

I use Dropbox and Google Drive to keep a synced backup of a handful of important files. I have noticed that some people like to store all of their files in the cloud, without even having a complete copy of all those files locally. In this article I give some tough questions to consider.


In short, I have hesitations about this approach of storing everything online. As we are working on careers that span decades, we better be taking care of our files in a way that makes them future proof. With the rapid rise of online storage, we can only expect this industry to take many more unexpected twists and turns. What if your service announces it will seize to exist? These things can happen, even for web services that seem too big to fail. Take GeoCities. For 15 years, it provided a place for free websites. An estimated 38 million websites went dark, without any effort on the company’s part to make a backup. They simply announced half a year in advance that they would pull the plug, and so they did. Others tried their best to salvage as much as possible, as GeoCities had a reputation for hosting very unique websites that encapsulate an important part of Internet history. Such a thing is likely to happen in the cloud storage industry. One reason is that most companies offer a free service, limited to several gigabytes. The idea of the tech industry has often been that offering something for free at first will bring in market share, and once you have market share you can then change your business model to become profitable. This depends on how long the financial backers are willing to put up with it. Look at the automatized digitization industry. Both Google, Microsoft, and other commercial entities announced stupidly large projects. Microsoft suddenly stopped, and Google had to drastically change its vision (after being sued by the authors guild).

What will you do when your service announces it will cease operations? You will probably want to download everything (only in order to upload it somewhere else?). Is there is a link to download all of your content? Or do you need to manually start download for each folder (God forbid for each file)? What is the download speed? When you have hundreds of Gigabytes stored, is it even possible to download all of it in time before the service shuts down? And do you have enough storage on your computer to receive all of it?

There are other reasons, too, to keep your files under your own control rather than a company. What if copyright and anti-piracy laws become so ridiculous that companies will scan your files and automatically block or delete those files it deems illegal? We already have early signs of this. What if the company has the right to sell metadata based on your files to third parties, resulting in targeted ads? What if files become misplaced, corrupt, deleted, or an older version is erroneously synced? What if your account is hacked and somebody steals, sabotages, or deletes your files? What if your account is suspended for no apparent reason, and it will take weeks to reinstate it? I think these are some serious risks you allow by handing over your files to somebody else.

Lastly, there is the issue of mobility in a more general sense. What if you want to reorganize the folder structure drastically, that is probably a lot harder and laborious to do with online storage. Or, what if you are in a place with patchy or no internet connection? Then you have instantaneously lost access to all your files. I think cloud storage gives a false sense of mobility. And if you do want to switch to having a local copy, you will need to invest a lot of time to make that happen.

The internet is a volatile, precarious place, whose physical, political, economical, and juridical place remains highly contested. I therefore think it is safer to hold on to your files locally, on your computer and on an external hard drive, in accordance with a backup strategy.

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