Closing the Net

New Amazon tablet raises concerns on open data

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When I read the news reports coming over the wire about the Kindle Fire this week, it became even more clear that we need to pay attention to keeping our access to the Internet really free.

In case you haven't heard, Silk will enable faster mobile web browsing by using Amazon's Elastic Cloud Computing (EC2) resources to pull together requested content on behalf of the Kindle Fire user, and then sending that content down in one shot to the Fire tablet. It will also be learning how to predict where you will go next, and actually pre-cache site content before you even click a link to go there.

As a technical solution, it's quite elegant and shiny. From a privacy standpoint, it's a bit of a nightmare.

(Before I get accused panicking, let me emphasize that I am fully aware that Silk will let you opt out of this feature, and use the browser without EC2 participation. I also know that this problem can just as easily be avoided by not using the Kindle Fire device itself.)

As my colleagues Joe Brockmeier and Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols have illustrated, the privacy concerns are great. Using EC2 as a web proxy will greatly speed things up, sure, but it will also allow Amazon to monitor your individual browsing habits. They say the data will be in aggregate form, but I have to wonder how that will work, since location-based services like Yelp and Latitude will need some sort of unique ID to figure out where you are.

Vaughan-Nichols raises the most chilling scenario: with your history on EC2 servers, any law enforcement agency with a warrant can see your browsing history without actually accessing your machine.

The privacy questions of Silk are certainly worth discussion, but as I alluded at the start of this article, I have an even broader concern.

Looking around at the state of the Internet, I can't help but think of a net that's silently closing in on Internet users, as Software as a Service (SaaS) platforms increasingly try to get in-between users and the open Internet.

Set the Wayback Machine back to the very early days of the commercial Internet, when services like Prodigy, CompuServe, and AOL initially kept access to the Internet under virtual lock and key. Messaging and content was handled strictly by these services, with only slivers of out-of-network content available. This was easy at first, because in those days--when we actually still called it the World Wide Web and protocols like Archie and Gopher will still in active use--there wasn't any real content on the WWW to see.

But then things, as they always do, changed, and suddenly the content on Web 1.0 exploded and AOL and the rest could not keep their users contained. Joined by Yahoo! and MSN, the best these companies could do was act as a nominal doorman for Internet users, trying to deliver content in a packaged manner that they hoped would be compelling enough to keep those users around long enough to serve them some ads.

Then, 13 years ago this week, Google did something to invert the model. First they created a search engine that was good enough to eventually become a verb in the English language. Along the way, they started selling ads, first on their search results and then in an affiliate manner on other web sites. Besides making Google truckloads of money, it had the effect of further weakening those old gatekeeper providers. Why make MSN your home page, after all, when Google search (and all the rest of its new services that would come along) would get you out to the Internet in a much more efficient and personal manner?

Other SaaS providers jumped in. Amazon, in particular, shifted from being an online merchant to a SaaS company. Apple made the move as well, morphing from hardware and software vendor to SaaS organization that happens to sell devices.

Now we are seeing the beginnings of a new phenomenon, one that would have been unimaginable in the early days of the Web: private commercial interests are slowly containing the Internet itself.

Given the stunning amount of data transferred around the Internet in just a single month--anywhere from eight to 494 exabytes, depending on who you ask--that seems flatly impossible. How can you contain the Internet? Honestly, you can't. But if something's too big to hold, you can do the next best thing: control access to the something. You can't throw a net across the Internet, but you can throw a net across Internet users.

We have seen this already, with Apple's services. iOS devices are pretty slick, but they all share the common feature of Apple deciding what kinds of apps will run on them. In effect, Apple is controlling the way iOS users view the Internet. This is the classic "walled garden" effect. They can get away with this because they also make the only hardware on which this operating system runs, and when I use these devices, I am fully aware that I am making a social contract with Apple that I am willing to play by their rules. For now, that will work, because my goals and Apple's seem to be in sync.

Google's Android, the open source answer to iOS, is touted as being the opposite of a walled garden approach. And with the more open Marketplace model for app developers, it certainly seems to the case. But let's not kid ourselves too much: at the end of the day, Android is a delivery platform for Google services, which are themselves delivery platforms for Google's ads. ChromeOS is the same thing for "traditional" desktop platforms.

It's not just hardware providers: Facebook has long wanted to "contain" users within its friendly confines, to drive up sales of its own network of ads and third-party applications. It works because there are still a lot of people out there who would rather hang out where it's "safe" and fun than venture out on the big, scary Internet.

And now, this week, we have the Kindle Fire. As I wrote in another blog this week, the Fire represents a disruptive force against retailers, because I cannot imagine that--like Android hooks into Google services--Silk and the rest of the Kindle Fire's toolset won't have hooks of their own that will drive consumer traffic to Amazon's own business. Yes, you can shop on the whole Internet with Silk, but you may find it easier to just buy things on Amazon.com. And even if you don't, Amazon will surely take note of what you do buy, to better offer you something similar the next time you roll your eyeballs into their site.

Rather than try to contain the Internet, SaaS providers are trying to get between us and the Internet. And they're doing it with slick and catchy ways that slowly ensnare us before we even know what's going on.

Privacy, security, and unlimited access to data are all at risk here. This is why efforts the Open Knowledge Foundation and Open Cloud Initiative are so important. These and other similar organizations represent different ways to keep access to our data limited to just who we want to have it, and no one else.

It comes down to this: will these SaaS vendors be our partners in using the Internet, or our captors?

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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