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Summary:

Of all the announcements from Amazon today, the most audacious one is about Silk, a hybrid browser that essentially pre-fetches the web, caches it and then serves it up to Fire owners. And that has implications – both good and bad, for consumers and Amazon rivals.

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Updated on Sept 29 at 9.20 am PST: Of all the announcements from Amazon today, the most audacious one is the one that involves Silk, a hybrid browser that essentially pre-fetches the web, caches it and then serves it up to Fire owners. I was pretty intrigued by it the moment I read about it. It reminded me of Skyfire. However, it was later when reading this post by Chris Espinosa, I realized the implications of it:

…what this means is that Amazon will capture and control every Web transaction performed by Fire users. Every page they see, every link they follow, every click they make, every ad they see is going to be intermediated by one of the largest server farms on the planet. People who cringe at the privacy and data-mining implications of the Facebook Timeline ought to be just floored by the magnitude of Amazon’s opportunity here. Amazon now has what every storefront lusts for: the knowledge of what other stores your customers are shopping in and what prices they’re being offered there.

Woah! That is a pretty big deal. I tried to get more clarification from Amazon’s spokesperson, who emailed me back that “Usage data is collected anonymously and stored in aggregate, thus protecting user privacy” and pointed me to the FAQ page. I still don’t get it, and I am waiting to chat with Amazon (tomorrow) to get further information.

Updated on Sept 29 at 9.20 am PST: A spokesperson for Amazon just pinged me back:

“Is Amazon able to peer into its customer usage behavior and use that to offer services based on that data. For instance if you see thousands of your customers going to buy SeeVees shoes from say a store like James Perse at a certain price, can you guys use that data to specifically tailor the Amazon store and offer up deals on those very same pair of shoes?” – the answer is no, as you can see in our terms and conditions, URLs are used to troubleshoot and diagnose Amazon Silk technical issues.  Moreover, you can also choose to operate Amazon Silk in basic or “off-cloud” mode.  Off-cloud mode allows web pages generally to go directly to your computer rather than pass through our servers. As a reminder, usage data is collected anonymously and stored in aggregate, and no personal identifiable information is stored. It’s also possible to completely turn off the split-browsing mode and use Amazon Silk like a conventional Web browser.

I asked David Ulevitch, founder and CEO of OpenDNS, an Internet security and managed DNS service, for his impressions. Here is what he had to say.

I think it’s brilliant. Not sure if people are wary of Amazon doing it since they will see all your traffic but SOMEONE should be doing this. Performance is one reason, but security benefits could be added too. Ultimately I think the idea of decoupled browsing makes a lot of sense. I’d rather a remote exploit run in a VM in the cloud instead of compromising my mobile device and rooting my phone.

But the caveat is that this is Amazon. People hand over all the cards to Google but they feel the exchange of value is worth it. But it took nearly a decade for people to even recognize they were giving something of value to Google. Armed with that savvy that exists now, consumers now know they are giving something to Amazon — so the burden is on Amazon to say how it will use the data or make the benefits so compelling that consumers don’t care just as Google does. It’s worth remembering that Google is open in many areas, but none of their openness is in the areas that matter.

So what do you guys make of Silk? Is the privacy concern for real or overblown? Love to get your thoughts.

  1. Dear Om, would it be OK if Google did this? Doesn’t Google already have possibly the largest trove of information, including perosnally identifiable information, about its visitors and users of its services?

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    1. I don’t think anyone can beat Facebook in terms of personally identifiable information. how many people have Fb accounts vs how many have google accounts? Google just have a lots of search data, they’re anonymised after 90 days anyway.

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      1. You are wrong. I can explain in five letters. Ready?

        GMail.

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  2. During the presentation it was mentioned that services such as Netflix are hosted on Amazon’s EC2 cloud servers. There’s no telling how many other websites host their servers there. Furthermore, a webhost such as GoDaddy or 1&1 could easily be hosting instances on Amazon’s servers, leased out to another website.

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    1. A web site hosted on EC2 is not a privacy concern since Amazon lacks the means and ability to track the data traffic all the way into your hands.

      This changes with Fire.

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      1. The crucial point, I think, is that they *aren’t* tracking usage data back to you — according to them, at least. They’re tracking your usage in aggregate, with the implication that you’re browsing relatively anonymously.

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  3. Desktop version possibilities? ads with one click buy buttons? people who viewed this webpage bought this?

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    1. Opera does similar stuff.

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  4. Nice pointer to the privacy and surveillance implications of Fire/Silk combo, Matthew.

    I think, though, that is also necessary to point to concrete examples of Amazon’s dubious uses of this “intermediary” power, notably in the case of Wikileaks. Using it’s power over “the cloud” to function as tool of the state. Also notion that Amazon, like every other US web-based outfit, is covered by Patriot Act. Canadian sites like Blacksun.ca base one of their strengths as being on CDN soil, and beyond reach of Patriot Act.

    My point is basically this: why not illustrate the ‘hypothetical’ scenario set out in your first quote — “Amazon has the largest server farms on the planet — with these real cases. Do we want Amazon to have this “intermediary” power, I think is your really good, and fundamental question? Illustrating it better with concrete cases I think punctuates the point.

    Oh ya, what about that name, “Fire”? Free riding on Firefox browser as antidote to Safari/Bing/Google triopoly? Just wondering . . . ? Cheers, and thanks for good question and nice pointer to important issue. DW

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    1. “Fire” is a play off “Kindle”; the name of the tablet device is “Kindle Fire”. The browser’s (internal?) name is Silk. I think it unlikely that people will confound any of that with Firefox.

      Also, what do you mean by “Safari/Bing/Google triopoly”? Safari is Apple’s browser. Bing is Microsoft’s search engine service. Google is a company. Firefox can hardly be said to be an “antidote” to any of them.

      The three companies are so adversarial with each other that it’s hard to imagine them forming mutual power block under any circumstances. And Apple, in its own way, is as strong an advocate for safeguarding user privacy as Mozilla / Firefox.

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    2. “Oh ya, what about that name, “Fire”? Free riding on Firefox browser..”

      More like: burn your dead tree books

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  5. I can see how there are some privacy/security concerns, but I don’t think they’re really all that big of a deal, considering what the users are getting in return. Browsing with Silk will be anywhere from 2 to 10 times faster than with other browsers, and will use significantly less data. In an era of spotty 4G coverage, and shrinking bandwidth caps, that’s HUGE. There will also be pretty sizable benefits for battery-life, as well.

    All they need to do to put the concerns to bed is give users a “privacy” toggle, which bypasses Amazon’s proxy, or allow users to install and use other web browsers, like Dolphin HD (which is already available in their app store).

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    1. The majority of the unwashed masses using the Fire will have no clue of the implications, and will most likely not know how to disable/bypass silk.

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  6. Just realized after reading cdeponosa’s blog that you used as inspiration that one good thing about ‘underlying architecture of Amazon’s plan is that it will be relying on its own “Content Distribution Network” (CDN), EC@. By doing so, Amazon is offloading traffic from cablecos and telcos. In Canada this is important because it undermines claims of congestion on networks, and thus need for bandwidth caps, net throttling, etc. Bill St. Arnaud, former Chief Knowledge Officer at Canarie did great paper on this for Netflix. http://dwmw.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/st-arnaud-myths-and-facts-re-ubb.pdf

    Anyway, just food for thought. cheers DW

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  7. Om,
    Opera mini does something similar – using their servers to make the effective page downloads smaller – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opera_Mini#Functionality

    They however seemed more ethical per this article at “The Register” -
    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/11/08/opera_transaction_cache/

    But you never know, maybe this will happen in more browsers and then people will get used to it!

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    1. Yep, I likened this to Opera yesterday.

      All browsers particularly Safari with iTunes, could do this, but are in many ways prevented from doing so. Do the licenses state that this behavior observation will happen?

      Remember when Gmail came out? Sheesh…

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  8. Is this any different than Google making the Chrome browser and having the ability to legally track every page visited?

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  9. Sounds like the standard BlackBerry BES/BIS system, which caches and compresses data, plus pre-scales images for your device. It *was* ground-breaking technology, circa 2001.

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  10. It’s better that it’s not the vindictive, paranoid, secretive Apple that’s doing it

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    1. Actually we should feel far, far more comfortable trusting our private information to a company that is secretive and paranoid like apple. They have denied access to their iTunes customers details whilst incurring the wrath of the publishers. Compare that to google whose primary aim is to sell that information.

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    2. Always a Apple hater that has no clue at all what they are talking about

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