Amazon’s 3G Kindle Leaps China’s Great Wall of Censorship
At a party hosted by the news anchor of Bloomberg here in Beijing, one of the guests pulled out his Kindle. We were all surprised that the camera man for Bloomberg would not be an avid Apple fan; but he said that he preferred the Kindle. And more over that he was able to use this in China with roaming even though he didn’t have a subscription.
I didn’t think more of it until I saw a woman carrying one on the subway. I am struck always by the lack of newspapers on the subway, but this was the first time I had seen the Kindle in public use. At Starbucks a lady next to me commented on my iPad, and told me
that she prefers her Kindle. Three consecutive mentions makes a communications trend.
Here is the story of how Kindle, which can’t be bought in China, is gaining some reading time behind the great Firewall of China.
‘Chinese users of Amazon’s Kindle get an unexpected bonus along with being able to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—they can use the device’s Whispernet 3G powers to leap over the Great Firewall of censorship.
Amazon’s Kindle 3G Whisperpernet service is pulling a fast one on the Chinese censorship-happy government, and giving Chinese Kindle owners the opportunity to connect up to services like Twitter and Facebook that
are otherwise officially banned inside the country. Whispernet, a GSM-based communications system, is how 3G Kindles connect to Amazon’s ebookstore to wirelessly download books and surf the net through the “experimental” browser. The amount of data needed to serve up books or slowly download simple text to the Kindle’s browser is pretty tiny, so Amazon makes Whispernet a free service—even while it pays its global telecoms partners for the privilege. This censor-leaping skill is definitely an unexpected boon.
The Kindle is not officially on sale in China, even while Amazon’s Whispernet coverage map shows it works there—spotty zones of both fast 3G and EDGE cover are available across the country, indicating Amazon’s linked up with one or more Chinese carriers—but it’s a popular item on the gray market, and Western tourists to China are almost certainly taking them there (which could explain why Whispernet is available).
So how does the Great Wall get circumvented by the simple Kindle? It’s a puzzling question—especially since the Net traffic from the Kindle is being routed through Chinese cell phone providers who, like fixed-line ISPs, must comply with the authorities strict censorship requirements. There are work-arounds that you can use if you’re a Chinese national who’s interested in avoiding censorship—an act known as “fan qiang,” or “scaling the wall”—and though it’s not common (and many Chinese aren’t even aware of the censorship) it does happen. But it’s not as simple as merely turning on your Amazon Kindle.
This implies one of two things: That Chinese censors don’t consider the problem serious enough to warrant attention, or the authorities have overlooked the matter. The way that Whispernet connections slip data over the airwaves may also play a part—forwarding data from cell phones from tourists inside China to foreign networks happens just like it does when roaming to other nations, so perhaps the Whispernet data packets are being simply sent back and forth without having to go through a server that detects if they’re stuffed with “illegal” content.’