Regulation of Internet giants has focused so far mostly on data privacy, where concerns are relatively well understood by lawmakers and the general public. At the same time, the threat of antitrust action is growing. Congressional hearings in the US with Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google have begun, and governments in Europe, India and elsewhere are undertaking or considering similar probes. Regulatory discourse has centered on social media, search, digital advertising and e-commerce.
Yet there is another area for which increased pressure is likely: cloud computing services, which play an increasingly critical role in many industries. Two big players, Amazon and Google, are already being scrutinized by lawmakers. Greater regulatory attention seems inevitable.
Deregulating big cloud
Given its dominance, some governments may initially focus on Amazon Web Services (AWS). With almost $26 billion in revenue last year — a 47 percent annual increase — AWS’ market share is larger than at least two of its biggest competitors combined: Microsoft Azure, its closest rival, and Google Cloud Platform, which is trailing but growing fast. At least one Wall Street analyst has publicly called for Amazon to spin off AWS as a separate business to help avoid regulatory pressure in other areas. As a stand-alone company, AWS could become more focused and business-friendly.
Breaking up big cloud would, however, be both politically controversial and technically difficult. If cloud is a vast experiment on a global scale, then breaking it up would be too.
If applications and services were separated from suppliers’ cloud platforms, would the underlying infrastructure they have built, such as data centers and networks, also be separated? What would happen to customers’ agreements, and how would third-party service providers whose businesses sit on top of cloud platforms (and infrastructure) function?
For the data center sector, there is also the question of what happens to the thousands of long-term agreements that colocation and wholesale providers have with the cloud giants (and which many rely on). These agreements would likely stay in place, but with whom?
Big providers’ valuation would also be problematic; part of their value is their tightly integrated ‘one-stop-shop’ services. And what about their non-cloud service businesses that run in their cloud data centers and over the wide area networks they have built?
Any antitrust action, at least in some countries such as the US, would assume a burden of consumer harm. On the face of it, consumer harm could appear to be lacking to regulators that — as with other innovations — have just a rudimentary understanding of the market. After all, cloud is characterized by low customer prices, which continue to fall, and competitors such as Oracle are promising services that would cut AWS customers’ bills “in half.”
However, given the scale and reach of cloud computing, some regulators will look more closely and beyond the data privacy and security laws that have already been enacted. The ability of lawmakers to create additional oversight will be complicated by the vast number of multi-faceted services available. The number of cloud services offered by AWS, Google and Microsoft has almost tripled in the past three years to nearly 300. Understanding the capabilities and requirements of AWS’ services (and those of other cloud providers) is so complex it is now a specialized career, including for third-party consultants.
Providers’ pricing structures and billing documentation are also highly complex. There is a standard metric for virtual machines (fixed per hour) and for storage (gigabytes per month) but multiple and varied metrics are billed for serverless, database, load balancer and other services. Providers have online calculators to help with this, but they can leave out critical (and potentially expensive) components such as data transfer, which obfuscates pricing for the buyer. Regulators may require simplified pricing and billing and greater visibility into how services and products are tied together, potentially leading to the decoupling of some service bundles.
This raises another area for potential oversight: broader and deeper interoperability among services. Multi-cloud and hybrid IT environments are common, but organizations are often forced to choose a primary cloud platform to manage their development and IT environments effectively. Greater interoperability among platforms, development tools and services would give customers greater practical choice and lower their risk of vendor lock-in. This could limit the ability of some providers to retain or gain market share.
It could also crimp their pricing strategies for non-cloud products. For example, beginning in October 2019, Microsoft will end its Bring Your Own License (BYOL) model that has enabled users of Microsoft software in their own data centers to migrate those workloads to a dedicated (single-tenant) host in a public cloud using the same on-premises license, without additional cost. Soon, however, Microsoft licenses will be transferrable only to dedicated hosts in Microsoft’s Azure cloud. Customers that wish to use a dedicated host in AWS, Google or Alibaba, for example, will have to pay a fee in addition to the standard license cost. Regulators may seek to curb these types of approaches that effectively “tax” users of competitor’s services.
The most likely scenario, at least in the short-term, may not be antitrust but enforced openness — specifically, greater transparency of cloud infrastructure, with regulators insisting on more oversight of the resiliency of critical systems running in the cloud, especially in the financial services. As a 2018 US Treasury report noted, bank regulations have not “sufficiently modernized” to accommodate cloud.
Regulators are beginning to look into this issue. In the UK, the Bank of England is investigating large banks’ reliance on cloud as part of a broader risk-reduction initiative for financial digital services. The European Banking Authority specifically states that an outsourcer/cloud operator must allow site inspections of data centers. And in the US, the Federal Reserve has conducted a formal examination of at least one AWS data center, in Virginia, with a focus on its infrastructure resiliency and backup systems. More site visits are expected.
Cloud providers may have to share more granular information about the operational redundancy and fail-over mechanisms of their infrastructure, enabling customers to better assess their risk. Some providers may invest in highly resilient infrastructure for certain services and either accept lower operating profit margins or charge a premium for those services.
The creation of any new laws would take years to play out. Meanwhile, market forces could compel providers to make their services simpler to buy and more interoperable and the associated risks, more transparent. Some are already moving in this direction but the threat of regulatory impact, real or perceived, could speed up the development of these types of improvements.