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Let's Go Jurisdiction Shopping: Data Sovereignty and the Cloud

Cloud ShoppingInternet users are accustomed to thinking of the global network as a sort of separate, special space.  In early days, people talked about “cyberspace” – a virtual world disconnected from our shared physical world.  When you hear the Zuck talking about the “metaverse” it feels like he’s describing an alternate dimension.

However, all these grand virutal realms are impossible without actual physical metal and electricity.  When you post a meme on Twitter or gesture to an empty playground in the Metaverse, bits are changing inside an actual CPU, memory stick, and NVMe drive and that kit is on someone’s soil (well, usually).

Where this all collides with the “muggle” world is when you get into legalities.  In the US, courts have held that the government can get a warrant for any server physically in the US, regardless of who owns it.  In a 2015 case, US Federal courts required Microsoft to share data from a server they owned in Ireland because the server was owned by a US company.

After the Snowden revelations, this all became a very hot topic as citizens outside the US weren’t keen to have their personal info vacuumed up by the NSA.  This lead to a variety of different laws which fragmented the global legal framework into different jurisdictions with different rules.  Dividing ourselves up into competing tribes is, after all, humanity’s superpower.

This is why initiatives like VMware’s Sovereign Cloud are so interesting.  If you’re a European country you are already super-regulated but what if you’re some small Caribbean nation?  Maybe your main industries are fancy corporate structures and shady bank regulation.  No one is firing up a Sovereign Cloud because they have unique cloud computing needs.  It’s purely to straddle the physical-virtual world divide.

For example, CaribCloud (the first Sovereign Cloud customer) describes their offering this way:

VMware Sovereign Cloud partners offer key sovereign capabilities to nations ensuring classified data is protected, compliant, and resident subject to laws within national territories. Cloud Carib now joins the VMware Sovereign Cloud Initiative, helping clients better protect national sovereignty within its region of operation. The tech firm headquartered in Nassau, The Bahamas…

In other words, if you put your data in the EU or US, you could be subject to warrants.  But if you put your server in some obscure jurisdiction, you’re subject to that jurisdiction’s rules.  Sure, as noted above, your “mother country” might still reach in, but seriously…if you’re Microsoft operating a public email system, you probably can’t evade, but if you’re operating out of the spotlight, surely a sophisticated corporate lawyer can figure out a safe ownership path.

Of course, you don’t need VMware to setup cloud computing.  They’re just making a marketing push.  But clearly there is a market for organizations that want to go jurisdiction shopping.

At its crudest, data sovereignty is a post on LowEndTalk asking for “offshore hosting” for a private torrent tracker.  More sophisticated corporate clients want to cut down on their legal overhead – or shelter their shady deals and undertakings.  It’s nice that these segregated jurisdictions are now upgrading to cloud computing but it’s clear that borders are as alive and well in cyberspace as they are in the physical universe.




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