Vass Bednar: Why Canada needs a publicly owned cloud

Vass Bednar: Why Canada needs a publicly owned cloud

Big Tech companies have become our data landlords

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Former finance minister Bill Morneau is pounding the pavement with his ghostwritten memoir advocating that Canada pay more attention to its productivity problems. He joins a genre of former politicians who belatedly champion policy ideas — not a favourite of many. But did you know that the current minister of justice, David Lametti, was publishing provocative policy ideas over a decade ago? He might want to dust them off.

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Way before it was cool to call for a government-run telco, Lametti was helping people imagine the prospect of a government-owned cloud. About 10 years ago, while engaging in his work as a scholar at McGill University’s faculty of law, Lametti considered how a publicly held cloud might ensure that cloud computing remains open and accessible in the long term. Such a cloud could be built by public and quasi-public institutions, he argued. Scholars have highlighted various benefits to this approach, including the lowering of overall costs through resource pooling, more storage capacity and more effective use of excess computing capacity.

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Canada’s nationalization conversations are rooted in the past and ignore the future of telecommunications. One common refrain over a perceived lack of competition has been a call to “nationalize” the telcos. Proponents of this approach point out that we are more reliant than ever on these now essential services, which need to better serve the public interest. A few public competitors exist across Canada — for example, SaskTel, K-Net, and Eeyou Communications Network — and there is growing support for ambitious municipal broadband projects that will continue to evolve the current landscape.

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However, it is unlikely that the entire telecommunications genie will be forced back in its oligopolistic bottle, especially after such massive capital expenditure by the Big Three telcos on physical infrastructure. The telecoms are here to stay, trenchcoat and all, and the best we could probably do to create a public provider is to establish one that competes on services, not facilities. That said, this doesn’t mean the ideological thrust towards nationalization lacks merit. Maybe we simply have our eyes set on the wrong infrastructure.

The ongoing pursuit of network sovereignty — a long-standing principle that in order to advance the public interest, citizens need to exercise effective control over the communication networks upon which the economic life of the nation depends — invites us to consider the prospect of significant investment in national cloud infrastructure that is publicly owned.

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Cloud computing is the practice of using a network of remote servers hosted on the internet to store, manage and process data, rather than a local server or personal computer. The Government of Canada last offered an update on its Cloud Adoption Strategy in 2018, acknowledging that it needs to start using the cloud in delivering IT services. But this strategy is about using the technology, not building and owning it while allowing businesses and citizens to leverage it. Right now, the government is in the business of procuring cloud computing power from a provider such as Amazon Web Services Inc. (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Alphabet Inc.’s Google Cloud Platform (GCP).

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Individuals use these services too, relying on the storage facilities and drop boxes from Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and Google to host files, songs and photos. That storage option might appear to be free, but it is also a mechanism that ensnares us with private firms. While these clouds are absolutely open and accessible to the public, they are ultimately privately held. In the process, Big Tech companies have become our data landlords. The global cloud infrastructure market is estimated to be worth well over US$203 billion.

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Other governments are already taking action on a publicly owned cloud. The EU is creating a marketplace for cloud computing through joint investments in cross-border cloud infrastructure and services.

Meanwhile, building a publicly owned cloud might complement regional economic development goals. For example, the cloud might be realized through a Crown Corporation and potentially built into trade pacts, such as the United-States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Such an initiative wouldn’t be cheap, and a public option may not be able to meet the security engineering of Big Tech companies out the gate. But we have the talent and expertise to mobilize and build this digital infrastructure.

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Right now, cloud computing mirrors the trend toward monopolization that we have witnessed in Canada’s telecommunications, transportation, banking and grocery sectors. If we eventually want a reliable, affordable public option for cloud computing, we need to think about building it now, as the public’s attention has honed in on the dynamics of competition that characterizes too much of the country. Now is the time for policy people to look ahead and deeply consider the benefits of national public cloud infrastructure.

Should we balk at the cost of such an endeavour and fail to build the publicly owned cloud, the rationalization for the decision needs to be recorded. Future analysts lamenting the confines of private-only cloud computing options will want to see it. Otherwise, our heads will continue to remain in the clouds when it comes to the prospect of nationalizing our telecommunications or railway systems.

We could build a cloud of our very own — and put our heads in it — before it is too late.

Vass Bednar is an adjunct professor of political science at McMaster University and executive director of the school’s Master of Public Policy in Digital Society program.

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