Amazon’s answer to the iPad made a splash in the gadget market when it was introduced recently, but the technology behind the Kindle Fire may fuel more debate in Washington over net neutrality.
Some industry experts are concerned the Kindle Fire’s Internet tools may accelerate the speed at which some websites load and disadvantage others. Powering the device’s Internet access is the Silk browser, which Amazon says “optimizes and accelerates the delivery of Web content by using Amazon’s cloud computing services.”
“By leveraging their cloud computing power through the Silk browser, the Kindle Fire is utilizing some practices that raise net neutrality questions,” Scott Jordan, a computer science professor at the University of California, Irvine, told POLITICO. “Such questions revolve around whether the company is favoring one website over another and/or changing the content of a website through optimization.”
Those questions could refuel the debate that’s been roiling Congress and the Federal Communications Commission for the past year over net neutrality — the concept that all Web traffic should be treated equally.
The FCC last year adopted open Internet rules, requiring all Internet service providers to abide by principles aiming to prohibit anticompetitive behavior on the Web. Some Republicans in Congress believe the FCC overstepped its bounds, and they have been trying to overturn the rules. But now, some Internet providers are questioning whether the regulations unfairly focus on only their services when other tech tools — like the Kindle Fire — may also be used to prioritize certain Web traffic.
“Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a number of examples that reinforce the point that there are a number of so-called gatekeepers for traffic in the Internet ecosystem,” Verizon spokesman Ed McFadden said in a statement. “This just highlights how quickly technology and competitive business models can impact policies like net neutrality.”
Verizon is challenging the FCC’s net neutrality rules in court.
Amazon claims that the new browser doesn’t favor certain websites or disadvantage others.
“Amazon Silk renders full Web pages on the Kindle Fire exactly as the website developer intended,” a company spokeswoman said. “It does not replace any of the content on the page.”
“The page speed optimizations implemented by Amazon Silk are applied equally to all sites, and there is no preference given to any particular website,” she added.
Even if the Kindle Fire was found to use technology in a way that violates net neutrality principles, the browser falls outside the scope of the FCC regulations. The open Internet rules apply only to Internet service providers.
This situation shows, industry experts say, that other actors in the Internet, apart from service providers, can affect performance or manage traffic in a way that rankles net neutrality advocates.
“There are issues of prioritization of operating systems and application stores, and all of this is very murky,” Jordan said. “With the integration of devices, operating systems and application stores, it might be appropriate at some point to revisit how the goals of the net neutrality rules might be achieved for the digital ecosystem of the future.”
In addition to browsers, another technology that can manipulate traffic on the Internet is so-called content delivery networks. Known inside the industry as CDNs, these services help transfer information through the plumbing of the Internet.
Nonetheless, most supporters of net neutrality say it is appropriate for the rules to focus on Internet service providers. Other types of Internet companies have enough competition to keep them honest brokers, they argue.
But the Kindle Fire’s browser is already the focus of some congressional scrutiny over data collection.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), alarmed about a potential intrusion of consumer privacy enabled by the browser, wrote to the CEO of Amazon in mid-October.
The problem is the browser acts as an intermediary and can be used to gather private information, said Jon Peha, former chief technologist at the FCC. “The intermediary server has the ability to speed up transactions for mobile devices and to improve stability, but it’s also a place that can collect data on what users are doing,” he said.
Amazon maintains that its servers do not collect personal information about Silk users. It does collect information about browsing activity across all users, but none of that is traceable to individual identity, the company said.
A user may also switch off the cloud function and use the Fire in basic mode, which would avoid having his or her information go through the Amazon servers.
The Gazette now offers Facebook Comments on its stories. You must be logged into your Facebook account to add comments. If you do not want your comment to post to your personal page, uncheck the box below the comment. Comments deemed offensive by the moderators will be removed, and commenters who persist may be banned from commenting on the site.