Conservative histories teach that nineteenth century robber barons were either political entrepreneurs (those who depended on political machinations and government subsidies to nurture business) or market entrepreneurs (those who didn't). Market entrepreneurs were the more successful of the two.
The savvy innovators coaxed every possible cent out of their products in order to turn a profit; at the same time, their technological discoveries advanced society forward.
For example, because John D. Rockefeller abhorred waste, he developed over 300 byproducts from a barrel of oil: paint and varnish to anesthetics to lubricant oils to gasoline. Meanwhile, he produced the main output of kerosene so cheaply that the whale and coal oil industries practically collapsed -- even electricity lost consumer favor for a while. The American public benefited from his industry: by 1870 (a mere five years after Standard Oil began production) the middle and lower classes could afford to read in their homes after sundown.
The lesson: hundreds of thousands of the world’s population benefited holistically from the superior products and the rate-cutting of the few market entrepreneurs.
Then and Now
Given the current state of the content management industry, I believe enough similarities exist to draw a corollary between the market entrepreneurs of yesterday and the cloud storage providers today.
Have you read any of the terms and agreements? Of course you have. By now, you've also read a multitude of blogs, news stories, white papers, tweets, posts, etc. A new documentary laments our loss of privacy. The government is monitoring us! Our companies may be monitoring us! Our free online services are definitely monitoring us!
Well, as the “old” saying goes, when something online is free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product. What is truly unnerving, however, is the delicate balance between ownership of content, retention management and license.
Good News and Bad News
The good news: the intellectual property people are on it. You, the creator, have to own the content in the cloud to reproduce it. If it’s licensed content you must adhere to the license stipulations (and court cases have already outlined the difference between the cloud as a delivery mechanism versus a storage mechanism).
However, the storage provider treatment of content in its cloud is sweeping. Borrowing language from One of the Big Ones: “when you upload or otherwise submit content to their storage location, you give the provider (and those they work with) a worldwide licence to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes that we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.” (author’s emphasis)
Furthermore, it can apply to any of the above actions to your content in perpetuity after you've cancelled your enrollment unless you delete your content. Please note: cloud providers assume that your content will stay “at rest” (read: permanently retained). You the user must check the box and outline retention to the provider.
Now, replace the individual with the company. Consider the big cloud providers like Microsoft, Amazon or Google. Because of their maturity in the marketplace, it’s more likely that an organization will store content with them (I’m assuming it takes a lot of signal to distinguish a boutique cloud provider from the others within their tier).
The positive? Just like our growth spurt 140 years ago, we advance technologically by leaps and bounds with applications that enable us to communicate and share information more easily than ever before. Another bonus: the company gains stability with one of the Big Providers!
But at what risk? I would like to be proven wrong, but I assert that very few companies are destroying their records. If retention management is never applied to content in the cloud and the provider has the right to access that content for ever in the name of service improvement … what does that make the cloud provider?
A new kind of robber baron. A *content* robber baron.
Editor's Note: To read more by Mimi, see her Records Management: Retention Schedules Take a Back Seat