Amazon’s Kindle Bypasses the Great Firewall of China

By: Qichen Zhang on 1 November 2010

The South China Morning Post recently reported that Kindle users can access banned websites in mainland China from the device. With Amazon’s electronic book gadget, Kindle users can now visit Facebook and Twitter, both currently blocked by the Chinese government. Already, reactions are reverberating through the blogosphere. An anonymous blogger on the mainland commented:

“I quickly tried Facebook, and it perfectly presented itself. Am I dreaming? No, I pinched myself and it hurt.”

Kindle’s ability to bypass China’s firewall may have to do with its Internet specifications. Amazon’s Kindle allows Internet access through its own Whispernet, a network based on the GSM system. Using AT&T’s 3G data network in the U.S., the device sends a request to Amazon. Amazon’s station then sends signals back to the Chinese gateway. Because the requests come from a Kindle, Chinese censors are perhaps being particularly lax on filtering content due to its main book-buying function, therefore allowing Kindle users unfiltered access to the web. Reporters remark that Kindle can only break through the firewall with its 3G connection and not with WiFi, since a wireless connection would depend on a local network rather than the globally available GSM network.

Currently, the Kindle is only available in China’s “gray market” as Amazon has not yet been granted permission to sell them in the Chinese market. A clandestine Beijing vendor revealed to SCMP that he smuggled and sold about 300 Kindles after sending them to an address just outside the mainland. Several sources have mentioned that Kindles are sold on Taobao, the Chinese version of eBay, starting from 500 yuan (about $75). Several Chinese carriers allow access to Amazon’s 3G data network.

But people remain wary to become too excited about the prospects of accessing the Internet without the restraint of Chinese censorship. Electrical Engineering Professor Lawrence Yeung Kwan from the University of Hong Kong mentioned the possibility of the government merely overlooking this slip, especially since every Kindle is registered with a personal account. And as most Kindle users in China are foreigners, Yeung noted that the government may simply be turning a blind eye to their Internet browsing. “Even SMS are filtered on the mainland,” he said. “They are more than capable of blocking this, too.” As one blogger said on Zhongnanhai, a mainland-based politics and news blog for English readers:

“One wonders how long before China closes this loophole.”