An American Editor

October 5, 2011

Privacy in the World of Silk

One of the things I dislike most about Facebook, and a primary reason why I am not on Facebook, is the necessity to check privacy settings nearly hourly. Even then, I’m not convinced that Facebook is really adhering to any policy that affords users even a modicum of privacy.

That disease of controlling information keeps spreading. Now with Amazon’s new Silk browser, which is part and parcel of the new Kindle Fire, the stakes have perhaps gotten higher. This may well be the first salvo in the conversion of Kindles from local control by the user to remote control by Amazon. I expect the day will come when to use an Amazon device, the device’s wi-fi/3G will have to be on.

Silk, which is the Amazon-designed Internet browser that the Fire tablet uses, may have serious security and privacy issues. Silk pipes the user’s online access — and cloud access — through Amazon’s servers. There is no way to access the Internet without going through Amazon. This gives Amazon the capability to follow user Web clicks, buying patterns, and media habits.

With this capability, Amazon now has what every retailer lusts after: knowledge that cannot be gotten any other way. Silk and Amazon servers will enable Amazon to watch where you shop and what prices you are offered.

I know that many Amazon fans think they will welcome this capability because it may well mean lower Amazon prices or an instant special offer from Amazon to beat a competitor’s price just for you. But is that what we really want? Do we really want Big Brother watching our every online move?

Our response appears to be a generational one. The younger the user, the less concerned about privacy the user is. This has become evident by who is exposing what on places like Facebook. Many people of my generation are aghast at the willingness of younger people to expose everything online. Younger users appear not to be overly worried about who will see their escapades or the ramifications their actions.

The lack of privacy seems to expand daily. Is there a line that cannot be crossed with impunity? By forcing users to the cloud, Amazon is saying there is no privacy line that cannot be crossed. I keep seeing visions of Minority Report with Amazon and Facebook in the role of the precogs except that unlike the precogs, their role is not for the social good.

I admit that until Amazon starts gathering the data and begins using it, we do not know how far Amazon will go or whether Amazon will misuse the data collected. Amazon fans will jump on this to downplay privacy concerns.

But the real issue isn’t whether Amazon will misuse the data; rather, should Amazon be collecting the data in the first place? Why is it that we will protest warrantless searches and seizures by the people we hire to protect us from evil, but not a similar, if not same, disregard for our privacy by outfits like Amazon and Facebook? I find it troubling that we think we are able to create a distinction that is meaningful to us between the two. Corporations are as ruthless in the pursuit of power and money as are the politicians and police forces we hire to safeguard us.

Sadly, it is nearly impossible to teach someone the value of privacy until they have been the victim of a privacy abuse. Experience is the only acceptable teacher. But now that we are beginning to see corporations creating methods of stripping our privacy bare, perhaps we should think more about what limits there should be. The longer we permit ourselves to be stripped, the more difficult it will become to correct course.

And that is the problem with Amazon’s new Kindle Fire and its Silk browser: The process of privacy intrusion will be slow, deliberate, and evolutionary. By the time we recognize how invasive the process is, we may no longer be able to do anything about it. Isn’t that the case with Facebook? Will that be true, too, of Amazon? No matter how much we like the bargains and service Amazon provides, we do need to step back and consider the ramifications of Amazon’s moving millions of people to its cloud, enabling it to data harvest without impediment.

October 3, 2011

Is This the Next Sneak Attack on eBookers?

Here’s something I’m sure every major publisher is thinking about: How can I get consumers to buy both the pbook and ebook versions of a book? Well, maybe they aren’t really sitting around the table thinking about that, but with my latest pbook purchase, I’m wondering if they are thinking about it.

I have enjoyed the “Safehold Series” of books by David Weber. Because Weber is one of my favorite authors, I buy his books in hardcover so I can read them and add them to my permanent library. A week ago, the fifth book in the series, How Firm a Foundation, was released. I had preordered it in hardcover and eagerly awaited its arrival.

It arrived and I put down my Sony 950 Reader to take up Weber’s book. That lasted a whole five minutes and two pages. The publisher chose a font size that was so small I could barely read the text. For my eyes to read the text, I needed a magnifying lens. This is the first time this has happened; I don’t know whether my eyes suddenly got worse (not likely based on the lack of problem I have with any other pbook I own) or the font size was deliberately smaller than usual in an attempt to keep production costs down.

Now I was in a quandary. Do I struggle to read the book? Do I put the book aside and simply not bother to read it? Do I break down and buy the ebook version, thereby doubling my cost because the book is published by TOR, an Agency 6 imprint? I struggled with these choices for about 30 minutes and ultimately settled on the third choice. The ebook cost $1 less than the hardcover, which was significantly discounted, so I effectively doubled what I paid to read this book.

This experience started me thinking: Will this be the next ploy of publishers? Will the Agency 6 decide that a small font size that is difficult for a good portion of readers is the best way to force readers to buy an overpriced ebook?

Experience demonstrates that publishers are investing fewer dollars in quality control, and fewer dollars in otherwise standard production services like editing. Experience also shows that overpriced ebooks from the Agency 6 are likely more profitable for them, which means a push to agency-priced ebooks.

In olden days, I would not have even thought to view what happened through the lens of conspiracy. But the Agency 6 have so badly botched their public relations regarding ebooks and ebook pricing that the conspiracy lens jumps right out at me. The Agency 6 publishers have met their Waterloo — consumer mistrust that paints everything the Agency 6 does with the brush of distrust.

It seems to me that for publishers to maximize return, they need to help move readers to ebooks and away from any form of pbook. I know I’ve written this before (see, e.g., The Business of Books & Publishing: Changing the Pattern), but if I were a publisher today, seeing that the trend is rapid growth in ebooks and no to flat growth in pbooks, I would be working on plans to drop mass market paperbacks and publish only trade paperbacks, hardcovers, and ebooks. Phase 2 of my planning would be to eliminate trade paperbacks and just publish hardcovers and ebooks. Perhaps a decade or two down the road, I would look at publishing hardcovers in limited edition runs for collectors and those pbook diehards.

So, moving back to David Weber’s new book and the font size, I guess it is possible that this was unintentional (i.e., using a small font in hopes of selling the ebook version) but now that it has occurred, I wonder if someone at TOR is following sales closely enough to draw a conclusion whether future TOR books should also use this hard-to-read font size.

I’m continually amazed at how the Agency 6 stumble around the periphery of a plan for ebooks but never quite have the moxie to do something constructive for them and for their readers. Recently, I wondered if they were going to draw the right lesson from the Harris Interactive Survey (see The Survey Gives a Lesson?). It is not that I’m cheerleading for the Agency 6 — frankly, I think their pricing scheme is a major consumer ripoff that has no merit — but there are certain things that I would like to see the Agency 6 accomplish because I think it would be good for me as a consumer and for ebooks. The question is how to lead them by their collective nose to those things that would benefit everyone.

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