Why Silk won’t be silky smooth for Amazon

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Updated. Amazon in late September launched new Kindle devices including┬áKindle Fire, a tablet that makes content a centerpiece of its tablet strategy. It also announced a new browser, Amazon Silk, that proposed to use cloud to offer a blazing fast experience. Silk’s hybrid browser architecture quickly triggered some privacy concerns. Amazon weighed in on my queries and clarified their position.

Nevertheless, I have continued to receive feedback, some private and some over various social networks. One that stands out is from MathewMatthew Prince, co-founder and CEO of CloudFlare, a hosted proxy service provider based in San Diego San Francisco who shared his thoughts. Prince, (you can follow him on Twitter @eastdakota) who teaches cyber law at John Marshall where he serves on the Board of the Center for Information Technology & Privacy Law, believes Amazon will continue to face “technical, legal, and privacy concerns with Silk.” He points out that similar attempts in the past have not been very successful, even for Google.

Amazon’s Silk Browser may be a game changer, but the history of similar efforts shows the company may face significant headaches in getting it to work. The Silk Browser loads pages through a proxy which can have a number of benefits to end users. Depending on how aggressive the Silk proxy is, it could speed up browser performance, allow Kindle devices to get away with slower, less expensive processors, and potentially even increase the battery life by offloading web rendering.

The Silk Browser it isn’t really new technology and it’s not a slam dunk that it will work. The Opera Mini browser uses a proxy which has several of the same features as Amazon’s Silk. Google tried something similar back in 2005 with their Web Accelerator Plugin. While the plugin is no longer available, the support documents still are. Google discontinued support in early 2008 after a number of issues arose — similar issues that are likely to be faced by Amazon with Silk.

I predict that Amazon is likely to face technical, legal, and privacy concerns with Silk. Technically, the biggest challenge will likely be cache invalidation. If I visit my bank website and my account page is cached, Amazon needs to be 100 percent certain that when someone else visits the same bank they never see my account information. From the technical specifications, it appears that Amazon is only caching static resources such as images. While that will solve many of the cases, there will still be places that Silk could end up leaking private data (e.g., a stock photo or porn site that charges for access to its photos).

Unlike existing proxies (like CloudFlare) or traditional CDNs whose clients are the website owners, Amazon’s clients are the web browsers, so they are copying content without the content owners’ explicit permission. This could lead to copyright headaches. While there are safe harbors for service providers caching content, Amazon’s nebulous status between network provider, retailer, and even publisher could muddle their case in court and make them a tempting target. The more Amazon alters the content in order to increase performance, the more jeopardy they will put themselves in.

Finally, Silk potentially puts Amazon in the privacy crosshairs. It appears they are planning to subsidize some of the Kindle’s pricing with advertising, and that advertising will likely be most effective if it is targeted using browsing data gleaned from Silk. Users and regulators can react very strongly if they feel their information is being sold without their permission, and Silk has the potential to score high on the creepiness factor. These privacy concerns have a way of blowing up unexpectedly with regulators resulting in substantially burdensome regulation. In this case, Amazon has already made many government enemies as they’ve fought Internet sales tax initiatives. Going after them for privacy violations may prove a tempting target for lobbyists that [are] already trying to demonize them.

My hunch is that Amazon will find a way to pull it off, but it won’t entirely be smooth for Silk.

What do you think about Prince’s take?

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