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Does the Amazon Kindle violate network neutrality principles?

Imagine signing up for broadband service that forces you to buy your computer from the ISP, only allows you to download DRM’d content from them, and only lets you visit pre-approved blogs – which they charge you a per-blog fee to access.

This pretty much summarizes network neutrality opponents worst fears, but it’s also a pretty accurate description of Amazon’s Kindle eBook appliance, which telecom consultant/blogger Ike Elliott told me might not exist if net neutrality regulation isn’t properly thought out. The device connects using Whispernet, billed as a “wireless delivery system” powered by Sprint’s EVDO wireless data network.

As far as I’ve been able to research, Amazon is acting as a virtual network operator in this case, not much different than Virgin Mobile or any other MVNO. Nobody would argue that these carriers aren’t restricted by the same rules that govern carriers that own their own networks. But even if Sprint is considered the service provider, someone is ultimately restricting ways an Internet connection could be used.

To review, the currently proposed net neutrality legislation seeks:
“to preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of broadband networks that enable consumers to reach, and service providers to offer, lawful content, applications, and services of their choosing, using their selection of devices, as long as such devices do not harm the network; and
“to safeguard the open marketplace of ideas on the Internet by adopting and enforcing baseline protections to guard against unreasonable discriminatory favoritism for, or degradation of, content by network operators based upon its source, ownership, or destination on the Internet.”.

A quick checklist:

  • Does Whispernet let consumer’s use their own device? Nope.
  • Reach lawful content of their choice? Nope.
  • Use applications of their choosing? Nope.
  • Discriminatory favoritism based on source, ownership, and destination on the Internet? Yup.

So why hasn’t there been an outpouring of public outcry against Amazon, a major network neutrality proponent? The simple answer is transparency. Amazon has always been very upfront about what the Kindle is and isn’t for, unlike, for example, Comcast, which has faced a backlash after is going back and forth on whether, and how, they throttle Internet connections. Another aspect might be Amazon’s radical departure here from traditional service models: There’s no monthly fees, no set usage agreements, just a pay-as-you consume model.

Elliott told me that while anti-competitive behavior by service providers is a real concern and must be regulated, he worried that net neutrality legislation which is too vague or too strict could cut out some possibilities for future devices and service plans like the Amazon Kindle. He’s blogged some other thoughts on what he thinks is wrong with the Markey bill.

Meanwhile, I’ve called and e-mailed Amazon for their take on whether or not the Kindle is “net neutral” and how this jibes with their public statements. I’ll post an update when they get back to me.

Update: Amazon responds, saying Kindle doesn’t violate network neutral principles.

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