7 cloud services compared: How much control do you give up?

7 cloud services compared: How much control do you give up?

Summary: Just what rights do you grant (and give up) when you upload files to a cloud-based service? In this post, I look at the TOS for Amazon Web Services, Apple’s MobileMe, Box.net, Dropbox, Google, Microsoft Windows Live (including SkyDrive), and SugarSync.

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April 25, 2012: I've now updated this post with a fresh look at the terms of service for Apple, Google, Dropbox, Microsoft, and more. Get the latest here: Your data, your rights: how fair are online storage services?

Call me crazy, but I actually read license agreements, privacy policies, and terms of service. Not obsessively, but regularly.

Given the recent surge of interest in cloud services, I thought it would be useful to look at the TOS for each of the major cloud-based services. Just what rights do you grant (and give up) when you upload files to a cloud-based service? In this post, I look at the TOS for Amazon Web Services, Box.net, Dropbox, Google, Microsoft Windows Live (including SkyDrive), and SugarSync. I also included the TOS for Apple’s MobileMe service. MobileMe will be replaced this fall by iCloud, but terms for the iCloud service are not yet available.

Of course, legal documents aren’t a be-all and end-all. A company’s behavior is equally important, especially when that record is consistent and formed over a long period of time. But knowing what a service can do with your files is a crucial bit of information when you’re formulating strategies to keep personal and confidential information secure.

This topic takes on a special interest in the wake of this week’s dustup over the Dropbox Terms of Service. A revision published on July 1 originally contained this jaw-dropping paragraph:

By submitting your stuff to the Services, you grant us (and those we work with to provide the Services) worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable rights to use, copy, distribute, prepare derivative works (such as translations or format conversions) of, perform, or publicly display that stuff to the extent reasonably necessary for the Service.

Before you dismiss that as mere boilerplate language, read Ben Schorr’s excellent analysis of the new TOS:

Even the botox fanatics among you should have a raised eyebrow at this point. The very words "distribute" and "publicly display" should be all you really need to hear.

Now some of you are saying "Oh, sure, the agreement says that but they won't really DO it." Fair enough. Many of you reading this are lawyers (I know my audience), would you encourage your client to sign an agreement that says the other side has the right to do something onerous with the caveat that "I know it says they're allowed to do it, but they won't really do it." This agreement gives them permission to do it. Do you take their word that they won't? Up to you.

Within days, Dropbox revised its TOS again, adding a clarifying sentence: "This license is solely to enable us to technically administer, display, and operate the Services." But the damage had already been done.

Update: See Ben Schorr's follow-up post: Dropbox Kisses and Makes Up? Money quote: "So...is it all better now? Can we go back to cuddling up with Dropbox and put our worries behind us? Well...no." But do read the whole thing.

My question is how similar these terms are to other services, so I went out and snipped the relevant sections from the terms for each service. I’m not a lawyer, so I won’t try to draw any legal conclusions. But it is clear that the key players differ significantly in the wording they use in these important documents, which in turn offers a clue as to where you fit in their business model.

See for yourself, and follow the links if you want to read in full. Companies are listed in alphabetical order, beginning on the next page:

Page 2: Apple, Google, Microsoft, More -->

<—Previous page

See the previous page for the context under which these excerpts were collected. All text is a direct copy as of July 3, 2011. It is possible, indeed likely, that companies listed here will change these terms in the future. Do not rely on these excerpts to make any decisions without consulting the current terms and getting your own, independent legal advice.

Amazon Web Services

8.1 Your Content. As between you and us, you or your licensors own all right, title, and interest in and to Your Content. Except as provided in this Section 8, we obtain no rights under this Agreement from you or your licensors to Your Content, including any related intellectual property rights. You consent to our use of Your Content to provide the Service Offerings to you and any End Users. We may disclose Your Content to provide the Service Offerings to you or any End Users or to comply with any request of a governmental or regulatory body (including subpoenas or court orders).

Apple MobileMe

7. Content Submitted or Made Available by You on the Service

License from You

Except for material we may license to you, Apple does not claim ownership of the materials and/or Content you submit or make available on the Service. However, by submitting or posting such Content on areas of the Service that are accessible by the public, you grant Apple a worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive license to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, publicly perform and publicly display such Content on the Service solely for the purpose for which such Content was submitted or made available. Said license will terminate within a commercially reasonable time after you or Apple remove such Content from the public area. By submitting or posting such Content on areas of the Service that are accessible by the public, you are representing that you are the owner of such material and/or have authorization to distribute it.

Box.net

D. USER CONDUCT/ACCEPTABLE USE POLICY.

[…]

To the extent that the Services provide Users an opportunity to store and exchange information, materials, data, files, programs, ideas and opinions (“User Content”), you hereby represent and warrant that you have all necessary rights in and to all User Content you provide and all information contained therein. By registering to use the Services, you understand and acknowledge that Box.net and its contractors retain an irrevocable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use, copy, and publicly display such content for the sole purpose of providing to you the Services for which you have registered. In the event that you give Box.net the right to distribute your content, additional terms may apply to Box.net's usage or distribution of this content. You continue to retain all ownership rights in any User Content you provide and shall remain solely responsible for your conduct, your User Content, and any material or information transmitted to other Users for interaction with other Users. Box.net does not claim any ownership rights in any User Content. [boldface in original]

Google

11. Content license from you

11.1 You retain copyright and any other rights you already hold in Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. This license is for the sole purpose of enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the Services and may be revoked for certain Services as defined in the Additional Terms of those Services.

11.2 You agree that this license includes a right for Google to make such Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals with whom Google has relationships for the provision of syndicated services, and to use such Content in connection with the provision of those services.

11.3 You understand that Google, in performing the required technical steps to provide the Services to our users, may (a) transmit or distribute your Content over various public networks and in various media; and (b) make such changes to your Content as are necessary to conform and adapt that Content to the technical requirements of connecting networks, devices, services or media. You agree that this license shall permit Google to take these actions.

Microsoft Windows Live (including SkyDrive)

5. Your Content

You control who may access your content. If you share content in public areas of the service or in shared areas available to others you've chosen, then you agree that anyone you've shared content with may use that content. When you give others access to your content on the service, you grant them free, nonexclusive permission to use, reproduce, distribute, display, transmit, and communicate to the public the content solely in connection with the service and other products and services made available by Microsoft. If you don't want others to have those rights, don't use the service to share your content.

You understand that Microsoft may need, and you hereby grant Microsoft the right, to use, modify, adapt, reproduce, distribute, and display content posted on the service solely to the extent necessary to provide the service.

SugarSync

File Sync, Storage and Confidentiality

After setting up your account and downloading our Software, you can select the Files you want to sync and/or store. You can change the Files you want to sync or store whenever you want. In order to make the Service available to you, we need your permission to sync and store your Files. Accordingly, you hereby grant to SugarSync a license: (i) to use, copy, transmit, distribute, store and cache Files that you choose to sync and/or store; and (ii) to copy, transmit, publish, and distribute to others the Files as you designate, whether through the sharing or public linking features of the Service, in each case solely to provide the Service to you.

Your Files are not accessible by third parties unless you elect to make them available to others through the Service. We respect the privacy and confidentiality of your Files, so we agree never to disclose your Files to anyone unless you instruct us to do so or a court orders us to disclose them, as provided in our Privacy Policy.

Besides iCloud, are there any significant services I missed?

Topics: Microsoft, Apple, CXO, Google, Mobile OS, IT Employment

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104 comments
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  • RE: 7 cloud services compared: How much control do you give up?

    I stopped using dropbox because of this change to the TOS. The only service I use now is SkyDrive, but I see they also have the same disclaimer as dropbox, although the Microsoft wording seems more concise. I also use Tonido for anything I really don't want on the cloud.
    Ross Snowden
    • RE: 7 cloud services compared: How much control do you give up?

      @Ross Snowden ... actually, no, the Microsoft wording explicitly states they only have the rights required to provide the service to you and subsequently the users you've indicated. So, in other words, if you choose "Only Me", "Shared with ....", or "Public" then they are obligated to comply.

      This seems pretty consistent with everyone EXCEPT Dropbox. Dropbox has obviously updated their wording, which is good, but it certainly represents a company whose agreements I would pay VERY close attention to in the future if I were to use their services.
      GoodThings2Life
      • RE: 7 cloud services compared: How much control do you give up?

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      • RE: 7 cloud services compared: How much control do you give up?

        @GoodThings2Life I'm not too familiar with dropbox but SkyDriv has been working great for me, but there are certain restrictions at times with SkyDriv bandwidth issuess
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    • RE: 7 cloud services compared: How much control do you give up?

      @Ross Snowden....I agree, Microsoft uses words like you and yours, indicating that the user has never given up control or possession of his/her content.

      I have been really hesitant to use 'cloud' services for my law firm. I'm not sure if there is a 'REASONABLE EXPECTATION OF PRIVACY' in using cloud services. If not, all my clients files can be 'requested' because its deemed that by handing my files over to a cloud service is making them available to a third party and thus, no longer protected. I'd really like to see more legal analysis in this field.
      retnep
      • RE: 7 cloud services compared: How much control do you give up?

        @retnep You are in a law firm, and possibly even the owner of it. The fact that you are even considering using the cloud for your business is galling. Your firm would never make my shortlist for hiring.
        rxex1948
      • RE: 7 cloud services compared: How much control do you give up?

        @rxex your FUD is charming. "the fact that you'd consider using digital storage for documents is galling, your firm would never make my shortlist for hiring."

        "your consideration of using typewriters is galling... your firm would never make my shortlist" (you can steal typewriter ribbon from the garbage...)
        genewitch
      • RE: 7 cloud services compared: How much control do you give up?

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  • RE: 7 cloud services compared: How much control do you give up?

    The only content I store on DropBox is stuff which is already in the public domain which I anticipate the need to seamlessly access across various computers (mobile & fixed), so I personally don't see any downside to the change in ToS. If there's something I really want to retain as "private" under my total control, then I store it on my personal hardware only. Seems like common sense.
    bakersma
    • RE: 7 cloud services compared: How much control do you give up?

      @bakersma ... exactly.
      GoodThings2Life
    • RE: 7 cloud services compared: How much control do you give up?

      @bakersma ... You are a thinking person; good going.
      tom@...
    • RE: 7 cloud services compared: How much control do you give up?

      @bakersma yep...couldn't have said it any better. wish more had it though!
      ohn-btw
    • RE: 7 cloud services compared: How much control do you give up?

      @bakersma
      If it is in the least sensitive, personal, or business confidential, don't let it off your hardware. That is common sense, not only due to TOS concerns, but general accessibility by accident or intent. What ain't there, ain't at risk.
      Trilogy
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  • Edward, please add ADrive to the comparison; they offer 50 GB of free ...

    ... storage, even though their Java Uploader always fails to upload files ("Basic uploader" works), and there is limit of 2 GB for single upload (hence this is also limit for a file size), as well as no more than 1000 files can be uploaded in one operation.<br><br>However, if you pay, then these limitations should be lifted.<br><br>Not sure what their license terms are, as well as about <b>whether, if these exist, abusive points are going away once you pay to them</b> -- as in case of "free" GoogleDocs versus paid GoogleDocs, with the latter not allowing all of tens of thousand random Google staffers to "open, browse and display" your files.
    DDERSSS
    • I might consider doing so...

      @DeRSSS

      It would help tremendously if you used my preferred name. Hint: Nowhere on this site, or on my books, or anywhere else do I use the name Edward.
      Ed Bott
      • I did not think it might cause any inconveniece (people usually feel this

        @Ed Bott: ... if it is other way around: "Liz" instead of "Elizabeth", "Bob" instead of "Robert", et cetera; I think full names sound more respectful). If so, sorry; does this short version of name has something intentional about it, rather than being habit/convenience (not to say that reason is insufficient; just curious if there is something more to it)?
        DDERSSS
      • My name is Ed

        @DeRSSS

        It's really as simple as that. 99/100 times someone calls me by another name, it's an attempt to make some sort of point. If you're the 1/100 exception, hen you'll have no trouble respecting my wishes.
        Ed Bott
        • Now

          @Ed Bott

          <strike>Edward</strike>, I mean Ed
          You are just inviting people to start calling you that.
          Dietrich T. Schmitz, *~* Your Linux Advocate