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.

January 21, 2010

A Modest Proposal III: Dying Days of Giant Publishers (Part 2)

In yesterday’s post, I gave four reasons (five if you want to count returns separately) why the giant publishers are on their funeral march: they are too big to react quickly to market conditions; they haven’t learned the Dell lesson; they let others sit in the catbird’s seat of deciding industry policy; and they haven’t come to grips with who are their future customers. Essentially, the giant publishers are early 20th century behemoths who have yet to adapt to 21st century technology and consumers.

These are interrelated problems, all stemming from the same root, which is the giant publisher having ceded industry leadership to outsiders.

In a way, the Dell lesson — Tell the customer he can have it his way and then limit the options — was tackled in my end-the-paperback proposal. Publishers have to learn to create their markets, not be led by markets imposed on them. This is the difference between Amazon, Apple, Google, and the giant publishers.

Amazon led the market by creating the Kindle and Kindle editions, and Apple and Google are inventing their own book markets. The giant publishers are trying to catch up. But Amazon (soon to be joined by Apple and Google), by leading the market defined it and is setting the terms. Amazon is also applying the Dell lesson: You can have an ebook in any format you want as long as it is a Kindle format. The giant publishers, who should have led, instead fumbled so badly that they are in disarray over how to catch up. More importantly, perhaps, for the publishers is that Amazon is turning them into the bad guys in the public relations war for the consumer soul. It’s the problem of the giant publishers being a sumo wrestler when a ballerina is needed — and not recognizing the problem.

To survive the days ahead, the giant publishers need to lead the marketplace, not follow it. If it is true that ebooks are the wave of the future, then publishers need to grab hold of this market and lead it or prepare their funeral pyres.

Publishers need to gain the upper hand in the pricing, geographical, DRM (digital rights management), and format wars. They have started by slowly adopting ePub as the uniform format, but otherwise are in disarray.

My solution: Create an international book repository owned and operated by a consortium of publishers!

Publishers should unite and create a single international repository for every ebook published by member publishers and by self-publishers. Membership should be open to all ebooks with an ISBN. All books would be kept on the repository’s servers. Consumers would buy a book once from a bookseller such as Smashwords or Barnes & Noble, but then be able to read the book on any device they own, without the need to transfer the book from device to device.

Publishers would create a single software system so that if a buyer started reading a book on his dedicated device at home, he could continue reading from the place he bookmarked on his smartphone while commuting to work, on his computer during lunch, on the smartphone for the commute home, and on his dedicated device at home. The repository would also give consumers the option to download a copy of the purchased book to a single device, just as is done now.

This would benefit both consumers and publishers in multiple ways. Here are a few: Because the books would be held remotely, they would be device agnostic. Publishers could use a single uniform format with a single uniform DRM scheme that every device manufacturer could use royalty free. Publishers could enable consumer sharing on a book-by-book basis by allowing, for example, the book buyer to give some number of named individuals access to the book, giving buyers some reasonable ability to share ebooks; different books could have different sharing limits. Consumers could buy a book and access it anywhere at anytime on any device capable of displaying the text — today, tomorrow, and for 99 years into the future. 

The idea is not to replace booksellers. Rather, the bookselling world could continue as is but when an ebook is bought, access to the book would shift from the bookseller to the repository. It could be done as “smoothly and flawlessly” as done now, even with automatic wireless downloading.  With the repository, publishers will lead the ebook marketplace and enhance their survival prospects.

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