“The challenges of the cloud, as the hidden face of digital services, should be made known to European citizens.”

The cloud is the foundation used by the businesses of the new economy to offer their services. In the last few years, it has brought about a lot of innovative breakthroughs, but still remains the hidden face of the digital revolution, overlooked by the general public. And yet it presents some important issues, particularly in terms of protecting and processing personal data. Xavier Perret explains why it is important to have a European-based cloud provider among the world’s biggest players in the web market.

We talk about the digital revolution almost every day. OVH provides companies with the foundation for this revolution: cloud computing. And yet, OVH is not well-known to the general public. Why is that the case?

OVH is the factory, producing the technological building blocks that form the foundations of the digital revolution. We talk about the internet being virtual. OVH deals with the hardware aspect of it. Companies need infrastructures to store the data they produce: datacentres, servers, a global fibre optic network and network hardware spread across the globe. To give you an idea, OVH has more than 300,000 physical machines and more than 350,000 virtual servers currently operating in 27 datacentres. To manage a fleet of this size, we need people on shift day and night to ensure that our infrastructures are always online and completely secure. For our industry, these factors have become essential requirements. OVH now has 2,400 employees worldwide, and we would like to recruit another 1,000 employees in the coming year. We are definitely not a household name, but I think a lot of you have heard of us before. Or you might have used our servers without realising it, through the use of a digital service offered by one of our customers. And we have a lot of customers — more than 1 million worldwide!

In the past, IT, as well as administration, was managed internally within a company. Since the late 2000s, companies have been mass-migrating their data and services onto the cloud. Managing an IT infrastructure can be restrictive, and also involves costly investments — not to mention data security, which requires increasingly specialised skills. The cloud provides users with simplicity, flexibility and agility. E-commerce websites, job-specific web and mobile applications, intranet, music and video streaming services, gaming, administration portals… The cloud now hosts all kinds of services, and helps companies to innovate more rapidly by focusing on their real added value. And less and less time is taken up by IT administration!

IT is now delivered “as-a-service”, with companies like OVH managing the hardware layers, maintenance, and hardware and software updates for fleets of servers. That’s the cloud! In just a few clicks, you can get the resources you need to deploy a new project, test an idea, or handle peak loads. These resources can be delivered in just a few minutes, and you only pay for what you use. This revolution remains largely invisible to the general public, who nonetheless use digital services more and more each day, and are contributing to an explosive increase in digital usage.

As a consequence of this, data production is growing exponentially, at a rate of 40% per year (source: IDC). This creates a growing need for storage and data processing capacities, especially because of big data, machine learning, deep learning, and the technology we are hearing more and more about — artificial intelligence.

Just think... a robotised factory will soon be producing more than one petabyte of data each day. But the data collected is also personal and behavioural, used by algorithms to improve the digital services you use on a daily basis, by becoming more personalised to you.

At a time where GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) are seen as the new leaders of the economy, with unlimited power, OVH is stepping forward as a European competitor. In a global economy, is it important to have European alternatives to the major American superpowers that lead the web market?

Data is being collected and used on a massive scale every day, with informed (or less-informed) consent from users, in exchange for which they receive increasingly high-performance services to use in both their personal and professional lives.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will come into effect from May 25th, 2018. This is a major project that will standardise data protection laws in all countries within the EU and provide stricter guidelines for companies that process data — and these days, that means almost all companies! The aim is “to give EU citizens back control over their personal data, and to simplify the regulatory environment for international businesses”.

It is a major step forward that confirms Europe, as a territory, is concerned with protecting its citizens’ private lives and data confidentiality, including data held by companies involved in increasingly intense global competition (another effect of the digital revolution).

I believe that the application of this new regulation (which is giving companies a lot of work to ensure that their processes are compliant) will also be an opportunity to raise public awareness regarding data protection.

A recent survey by the ICO showed that only 1 in 10 British adults has a good understanding of how their personal data is used by UK companies and organisations. It also revealed that only 20% trust the companies that store their personal information.

It is time to move beyond this distrust and lack of knowledge, to gain a better understanding of the challenges associated with where data is stored and what legal regulations apply. EU citizens need to understand that the cloud is not just an intangible mass that floats above their heads. Their data is physically stored in datacentres, and guarantees will differ depending on whether those are based in the UK, France, Europe or the US (take the Patriot Act, for example, and the general surveillance programmes that have been implemented over the last few years). The same goes for when their data is hosted on French soil, but by a cloud provider that is subject to US laws, or was originally founded in Asia, under the extraterritorial application of certain regulations. China, in particular, has sailed full steam ahead into the digital era, and its determination to expand is reaching Europe.

In an climate of strong growth (up by 30% per year), and with a business model that requires substantial investment, the cloud market will experience a sharp increase in market consolidation over the next few years. In reality, this has already begun. Soon, around ten cloud service providers will share the market. We think it is very important for companies and their customers to have a European alternative to the cloud-based solutions offered by American and Asian providers.

It is a question of data sovereignty, and given the importance that digital technology now has in our daily lives, these geopolitical issues must be made known to European citizens.

OVH is now a European leader in cloud services, and to strengthen our global position we are accelerating our international development by building new datacentres in Germany, the UK, Poland, and the Asia-Pacific region. We have also built a datacentre in the US, but have made our American entity legally independent from all other areas of the company. Our goal is to support our customers wherever they are based around the world, and wherever people are likely to use our technology.

What makes the OVH cloud stand out? When people talk about storage technology and data processing, what is it that sets Europe apart from the rest of the world?

Aside from the legal and regulatory aspects — which are absolutely vital — we advocate a different cloud model: an open cloud. At OVH, we strongly believe that companies must retain freedom of choice when it comes to the digital world. They must be free to choose their cloud provider, to change them, to divide their applications between several providers, as well as to store some internally (that is, in a hybrid cloud). And they must be free to choose where their data is stored. We have to protect and preserve this freedom.

Data reversibility (in other words, the ability to migrate or repatriate data) is not always possible, and can be made difficult by technological vendor lock-in policies. To combat this, our cloud solutions are based on technological standards, including a number of open-source technologies.

The cloud has become a strategic subject for companies. Too strategic to be worth taking risks on, or signing a lifelong contract with an operator. By advocating an open cloud, we can stop a few dominant players from setting the rules, just because they control part of the market.

OVH has recently solidified this militant approach by creating the Open Cloud Foundation, which has already been joined by around 30 companies, professional associations, public organisations, and research centres. The Foundation is also involved in intermediation issues — as it is increasingly common to use intermediaries (search engines, marketplaces, etc.) to help end users find your services — as well as new issues regarding intellectual property. These have come with the rise of artificial intelligence and “cognitive computing as-a-service”, which you can train using your data, although its “trained neurons” will not belong to you.

In short, I think the European approach sets itself apart on one essential point: our awareness of the social impact of this digital tsunami. Europeans, and particularly French people, are starting to develop an positive critical relationship with technology, in terms of both their use of it and its harmful effects. This is reflected in the biases that can slip into algorithms, at a time where they are starting to have a major impact on our lives in terms of affecting our relationship with information, guiding our political and cultural choices, and influencing where we travel. All of this is allegedly neutral, but it is very important to question this neutrality!

Everyone can see the benefits of what we call the “cultural exception”, which means not considering culture to be a commodity like any other in international agreements, especially those related to business. It is good to have an independent European cinema industry, which is able to thrive in spite of the blockbusters released by the American film industry (and in the future, the Chinese industry). This avoids one culture reigning supreme, and so protects diversity.

The same goes for the cloud: the industrial domination of the US in the digital market will inevitably result in cultural domination, with Farhad Manjoo arguing that Silicon Valley’s five main tech companies will continue to dominate the industry.

By claiming a place in the market, and applying European values to the way we deliver cloud infrastructure and data processing services, OVH has a strategic role to play in how companies digitally transform themselves.

So should we slow down, and not be so quick to adopt new technologies?

We shouldn’t slow down, but we should give it more thought. All companies are stakeholders in this digital transformation. As you know, if we miss the curve or slow down in the digital race, we risk being threatened by new, more agile players in the market. These players will have learned how to benefit from new technologies. And they will use them to shake up a market dominated by the established companies, who are struggling to renew their value proposition, since there is too much inertia in their management and IT (the infamous legacy systems)! But jumping onto the digital transformation train is not just a defensive reflex. It is also an offensive strategy. Digital technology gives companies the opportunity to increase their efficiency, and focus more on their areas of expertise. In short, it is an opportunity for them to reinvent themselves.

It is tempting to jump on the opportunities offered by services that use voice recognition, semantic conversation analysis, facial recognition and object recognition in photos and videos to enrich the services we offer to our users. There are just as many data-intensive technologies. However, in a world dominated by digital services that defy cultural, historical and territorial boundaries, we must be vigilant about how and why we collect, process and use data. We must also be vigilant with regards to data ownership, because if we are not, users will grow conscious of this and may well turn against services that they formerly enjoyed. After all, they would see the real cost: the loss of control over their private lives.

Here’s a direct question: Are the cloud and algorithms neutral technologies?

The first notions of algorithms date back to the 9th century, around the same time as the concept of algebra, which is where the etymological root of the word ‘algorithm’ is found in early Arabic. The 1970s saw the emergence of the first computing machines, which were able to run algorithms automatically for the first time. Since then, the power of computer hardware has grown constantly, and algorithms have been perfected.

There has been a shift in recent years, leading to the widespread use of algorithms. With cloud computing technologies, people are now able to store and process large volumes of data at a relatively low cost. In other words, the power of supercomputers — which were only affordable for a few massive companies and research labs just a few years ago — has become accessible to any startup company.

The direct consequence of this is that algorithms now have a huge impact on our lives. But an algorithm is not neutral. At best, it reflects its creator’s interests; in a worst-case scenario, it reproduces biases that its creators are often unaware of.

These biases are primarily sociological and cultural, and are present in data sets, introducing themselves into algorithms via self-learning mechanisms. They are able to trap people in a “cognitive echo chamber”, or even reproduce and reinforce inequality.

Under the guise of a perfectly rational, mathematical object, an algorithm can insidiously spread biases. Is that a worrying thought when we are talking about recommendations for TV series, movies on a VOD (video on demand) service, or auto-generated playlists on an audio streaming website? We can put things into perspective.

However, when we know that algorithms are used in social sectors, such as healthcare, justice, insurance, financial services, and even the fight against tax evasion, we should absolutely be asking ourselves, “What political agenda do these algorithms have? What is their logic?”, to quote the book written by sociologist Dominique Cardon, which looks for an answer to this question.

And we should think about the conditions we need to put in place in order to maintain control in this era of algorithms and artificial intelligence. Sam Harris presented a TED talk on this subject, asking “Can we build AI without losing control over it?”

Teaching, design, the right to audit algorithms (to fight against the black box effect), or even the loyalty principle (taking into account user interests), are very interesting lines of enquiry for how we deal with this issue.

Like algorithms, the cloud is a form of technology that possesses both positive and negative aspects. I believe ethics is one of the topics that marketing and digital departments should integrate next.