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David R. O’Brien and Urs Gasser
Governments around the world increasingly engage with cloud computing—an umbrella term for an emerging trend in which many aspects of computing, such as information processing, collection, storage, and analysis, have transitioned from localized systems (i.e., personal computers and workstations) to shared, remote systems (i.e., servers and infrastructure accessed through the Internet).1 Cloud computing delivers several overlapping benefits that together distinguish it from traditional modes of IT consumption: computational resources are elastic and can be provisioned to many simultaneous remote users and scaled up or down with demand; services can be sold in economically efficient, pay-as-you-go models, much like a utility service; and operational expertise, including IT management and maintenance, can be outsourced to the cloud-service providers.2
Industry proponents herald these developments as the next big thing, and it appears that governments are listening. Over the course of the last several years, many governments have developed policy strategies to cultivate and participate in the emerging cloud computing industry. After reviewing a number of these strategies—led by governments in the US, UK, EU, and Japan—we observed that governments assume, implicitly or explicitly in executing their cloud initiatives, six distinct yet overlapping roles towards cloud computing: users, regulators, coordinators, promoters, researchers, and service providers.3
As users, governments take advantage of the technical flexibility and collaborative features of cloud computing by replacing their legacy IT software and hardware with cloud services managed by government employees and private-sector contractors such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft.4 As regulators, governments use legislative, judicial, and executive mechanisms to constrain and empower individuals, companies, and others working in the cloud computing industry. As coordinators, they actively participate in the development of technical standards, facilitate information sharing between the public and private sectors, and encourage industry players to build consortiums to coordinate interests.5 As promoters, governments publicly endorse cloud computing technologies not only by adopting them as users and encouraging the public to adopt them, but also by incubating and funding new and existing companies.6 As researchers, they conduct and fund public and private research initiatives that aim to understand the technical and societal challenges that the new technology presents.7 Lastly, as providers, governments are offering cloud-related services both to the public and to other branches of government.8
Although it is too soon to draw conclusions about the effectiveness or appropriateness of the different roles that governments may play, a number of early observations concerning the scope of these roles are worth noting.
Based on the rationales stated in their cloud strategies, governments’ objectives related to cloud computing are multifaceted—for instance, they seek to reduce their IT spending, encourage the development and use of innovative products, and foster their industries’ international competitiveness. The scope of these objectives, which can vary between countries and even levels within a government, are also shaped by contextual factors, such as politics, the economy, and cultural backdrops. Governments have a wide range of policy tools at their disposal, which they can tailor to the particular roles they choose to assume and the objectives they seek to achieve.9 For example, as coordinators and researchers, governments can use public-private partnerships to identify areas where policy measures can be improved and to facilitate the development of technical standards in private industry.10 As promoters of the industry, governments can strategically use government financial stimulus programs to encourage the development of new companies and to help existing companies and markets become more competitive on a global level. These policy tools and roles are not necessarily new observations, but the high degree of strategic coordination between the tools and the roles, whether deliberately planned or an emergent behavior, is noteworthy. In historical examples, government interventions in emerging technologies are often more subtle and involved fewer of the roles described in this context.
Governments are encountering challenges as they implement their strategies, particularly as they attempt to balance competing objectives across the six roles.11 As governments become users of cloud computing services, for example, they implicitly promote individual companies and the industry as a whole by providing a lucrative revenue stream and by publicly demonstrating approval of the technology. On the other hand, a government’s promotion of cloud computing can frustrate its objectives in other roles and raise questions about impartiality. Consider a case in which one branch of government promotes cloud computing for use by consumers and companies at the same time that the regulatory branch of government publicly scrutinizes the privacy and security practices of cloud computing companies.12 Such a situation results in rather confusing public messages that may undermine government action in either role. The complexities of information sharing among different government actors or hasty policymaking may be partly to blame for such collisions.
Government strategies around cloud computing also convey a striking sense of urgency, and this perhaps provides some clues about how governments perceive the importance of the cloud computing trend. If the predictions from analysts and industry proponents are accurate, then cloud computing is poised to profoundly change how technology products and services are produced and consumed.13 Computational resources will be more readily available to individuals and companies in developing regions of the globe, which may catalyze growth in commerce internationally. The countries with the most successful cloud industries may accumulate not just economic prosperity but also increased power, particularly since the centralized nature of cloud computing systems can serve as means to exert control over the flow of information.14 Other factors, such as recent controversies involving international government surveillance, also appear to be punctuating the desire for stronger domestic cloud industries and legislative protections in countries around the world.15
Governments have a long history of intervening in emerging industries, often with mixed results. At this early stage, the impact of government cloud computing initiatives is far from clear.16 But as they become more deeply involved, governments may find it increasingly difficult to balance their involvement in these roles while maintaining the trust of the public.17
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