Updated: Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain plays the contrarian when it comes to cloud computing: Is the cloud really the backbone of the future we want?

Zittrain’s talk, delivered at the Supernova conference in San Francisco, highlighted one of the biggest rubs with the cloud: We’re all slaves to a tethered device that frankly won’t be worth much without cloud computing. Consumers trade some freedoms and trust vendors to make decisions for us in exchange for ease of use. And sometimes these vendors will cave to demands from governments and other groups.

Don’t buy it? Consider:

  • Christopher Soghoian, a graduate student at Indiana University, has caused a stir. Why? He reckons that “the shift to cloud computing needlessly exposes users to privacy invasion and fraud by hackers.” He also notes that Sprint has received 8 million law enforcement GPS requests in a year.
  • The Kindle is a tethered appliance that delivers what Amazon wants you to see. And Amazon will cave to publishers on a text-to-speak feature.
  • Who can forget that 1984 incident on the Kindle? Simply put, Amazon can tweak your content. (Zittrain based his presentation on Amazon as CTO Werner Vogels sat and listened).
  • Apple tells you which apps are good for you. An Android eye application? Nope. How about an app called Freedom Time that mocked George W. Bush? Nope. The list goes on and on.
  • The FBI can go to OnStar and force the company to put a microphone in the back of a car to track a suspected perp.

“More and more, your reality is contingent on the cloud and features that are dictated by business judgments,” said Zittrain.

Zittrain said the biggest risk here is that the government can pressure platform providers. “You hit the platform providers and they cave for business reasons,” added Zittrain. “Smart devices can be bent toward law enforcement. As a society we have to grapple with new set of worries called civic worries.”

Google’s Bradley Horowitz, vice president of product management, said companies have to be “clueful and principled,” but noted there are a lot of new waters to navigate regarding cloud computing, privacy, and other issues. Horowitz added that Google management “cares passionately about these issues.”

Wharton legal studies professor Kevin Werbach asked: “Can we afford to rely on good management? People and leadership changes? Anything in design principles to avoid this?”

Horowitz said a strong cloud computing community and groups to keep giants honest will be critical. “It’s important that there are people that keep us on our toes,” he said.

Listening to this back and forth was interesting, but Zittrain has a point. Governments and other groups could pressure cloud providers into making a lot of decisions that consumers wouldn’t make on their own. What’s the answer? For now, it’s Horowitz’s clueful management approach, but it’s unclear whether that will always work in the future.