Amazon's 3G Kindle Leaps China's Great Wall of Censorship

China Kindle

Chinese users of Amazon's Kindle get an unexpected bonus along with being able to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on an e-ink screen--they can use the device's Whispernet 3G powers to leap over the Great Firewall of censorship.

Amazon's Kindle 3G Whispernet 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.

The truth will be discovered soon, probably, since the prominent South China Morning Post newspaper has a story about the issue today. If China's Kindles get locked-down, then the authorities missed controlling the matter earlier. If they remain free, then perhaps it's a signal that censorship attitudes are changing.

To keep up with this news, and more like it, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter. Or find more ways to connect via my about.me profile: about.me/rockit

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