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Casual Friday: When Clouds Go Bad

When ‘Convenient’ Comes Crashing Down

Cloud computing is great – until it’s not.

This past week, there was much ado made about Amazon shutting down a customer’s account based on fraud/DRM-related allegations. Problem is, Linn, the affected customer, did nothing wrong. You can read about the ordeal pretty much everywhere, but the site that kicked the whole thing off earlier this week is here. Below is the email Linn got from Amazon’s UK Executive Customer Relations:

Dear Linn [last name],

My name is Michael Murphy and I represent Executive Customer Relations within Amazon.co.uk. One of our mandates is to address the most acute account and order problems, and in this capacity your account and orders have been brought to my attention.

We have found your account is directly related to another which has been previously closed for abuse of our policies. As such, your Amazon.co.uk account has been closed and any open orders have been cancelled.

Per our Conditions of Use which state in part: Amazon.co.uk and its affiliates reserve the right to refuse service, terminate accounts, remove or edit content, or cancel orders at their sole discretion.

Please know that any attempt to open a new account will meet with the same action.

You may direct any questions to me at resolution-uk@amazon.co.uk.

Thank you for your attention to this email.

Regards

Michael Murphy
Executive Customer Relations
Amazon.co.uk

There was much back and forth, but to no immediate avail: Amazon UK remained steadfast in its decision, and every book Linn ever bought for her Kindle was erased remotely. Her account forever barred, even the Kindle she purchased was rendered useless. Amazon did not refund her the cost of the books she purchased, much less the cost of the Kindle that is no longer of use to her.

Linn was banned by Amazon for something she purportedly didn’t do or understand.

The Siren Song of Convenience

Everyone who moves data and personal services to the cloud knows one thing intimately: the convenience of it all. No software to install, ubiquitous data access, no versions to track and update. Forgot your document? It’s in the cloud, even if you’re in Tahiti on a public hotel computer with a Fruity Umbrella Drink waiting for you poolside. Get a new Kindle? With a few clicks, the new device is tied to your Amazon account and everything you’ve ever purchased shows up, ready to read. It’s modern-day magic.

The convenience is intoxicating, so much so that the implicit trust you put in the cloud service provider takes a back seat. Pragmatism be damned. Your life just got easier.

Until it gets harder. Way harder.

One day, the cloud provider decides, via fraud detection algorithms, that you are a pirate. Or a terms-of-use violator. Whatever. At the flick of a switch, your account is dead in the water, and everything you had stored in the cloud (data, purchases, etc.) is immediately inaccessible.

You’re an unwanted customer at best, a criminal at worst.

Now it’s you against the company, a once-polite convenience provider turned malevolent monolith. If you’re anything like Linn, you can’t get an answer out of them. They dish you disappointingly mealy-mouthed corporate-speak. You hit brick walls. Whatever they’ve flagged you you are, and sorry, that’s the story. Good luck.

You’re going to need it.

Take Steps to Create an Emergency Backup

Sometimes, there’s not much you can do. Sometimes, there is.

In the case of Amazon – and this is especially important, seeing how so many of us are active users of Amazon’s services (in fact, I wrote of my appreciation of Amazon before, right here on this blog) – you can take steps to make sure the books you’ve bought for your Kindle are, you know, yours. Here’s a pretty good guide, and there are others if you Google around.

Unfortunately, this is a cat-and-mouse game. You’re probably thinking, “I never do anything remotely risky. Why should I mess with all of this?” Two reasons: sometimes, the machine rages against you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Just ask Linn. The other reason is more pragmatic – maybe the cloud provider shuts down, loses funding, sells out – whatever – and takes all of your data and purchases with it. Either way, it’s a bad day.

I can go on, but I think the point is this: don’t be blinded by convenience, understand that the friendly website can do zero-to-aggressive in the blink of an eye, and take some steps to ensure that the data and purchases you spent money on are liberated and protected to some extent.

Back to Linn: there is good news, after all this. Amazon took on tons of negative PR from Linn’s story, with the ever-powerful Reddit and dozens of blogs speaking up to the inequity of what Amazon did. As of this past Wednesday, Amazon has decided to reopen Linn’s account.

Still, don’t be fooled: you can’t rely on the Internet fighting for you if your time comes to deal with this. Take your own steps to build a lightweight insurance policy.

Have a good weekend, everyone.

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