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Congress wants answers on Amazon Silk privacy

Rep. Ed Markey asks Amazon to spell out new browser's privacy implications

October 18, 2011 02:45 PM ET

Computerworld - A Massachusetts congressman has asked Amazon.com to spell out whether and how its upcoming Silk browser will collect information from users when the retail giant launches its Kindle tablet next month.

U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the co-chairman of a congressional caucus focused on consumer privacy, last week asked Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to answer four questions about Silk and data collection.

"Consumers may buy the new Kindle Fire to read 1984, but they may not realize that the tablet's 'Big Browser' may be watching their every keystroke when they are online," said Markey in a press release last Friday.

Markey cited a story in the New York Times earlier this month that stated Silk "may give Amazon unique insight into the Web clicks, buying patterns and media habits of Fire users."

Amazon introduced the Kindle Fire and its built-in Silk browser late last month, saying then that the tablet would go on sale in mid-November.

The browser, which is based on the open-source WebKit engine -- the same engine that powers both Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari browsers -- will connect by default to the company's cloud service, which will handle much of the work of composing Web pages, pre-rendering and pre-fetching content, and squeezing the size of page components. That, claimed Amazon, will speed up browsing and let low-powered processors like those in the Fire render sites faster than other mobile browsers and devices.

Silk raised eyebrows among privacy advocates.

"This makes Amazon like your ISP," said Aaron Brauer-Rieke of the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), a Washington-based advocacy group, in an interview last month. "Every site, everything you do online [through Silk] will go through Amazon. That's a new role for someone like them, and I don't think it's at all clear that Amazon can step into that, or that it will be apparent to consumers."

In his letter to Bezos (download PDF), Markey expressed his privacy worries.

"I am concerned that such a combination will enable Amazon to collect and utilize an extraordinary amount of information about its users' Internet surfing and buying habits," Markey said.

Markey asked Bezos to explain what information Silk will collect, what Amazon plans to do with that information, how the company will present the privacy policy to Kindle Fire and Silk users, and whether any data collection will be opt-in by default.

Amazon has answered some of those questions in an FAQ and a longer terms and conditions document published last month. For instance, users will be able to browse using Silk without going through Amazon's servers, although that will presumably result in longer page rendering and download times.

Markey wasn't the only congressman to take on Amazon last week.

In a hearing last Thursday by the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) blasted Silk for its data collection potential.

"My staff yesterday told me that one of our leading Internet companies, Amazon, is going to create their own server and their own system and they're going to force everybody that uses Amazon to go through their server and they're going to collect all this information on each person who does that without that person's knowledge," said Barton during the hearing. "I mean, enough is enough."

Barton and Markey are co-authors of legislation that would update the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

Markey asked Amazon to respond to his questions by Nov. 4.

Amazon did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Markey's letter.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at Twitter @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed Keizer RSS. His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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