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Is Google+ censored in China? Not so fast

Whoa, Nellie. Some international press outlets appear to have mistakenly reported that Google+, Google's new social networking site released yesterday, has already been blocked in China. But a handful of major blog websites in China have since debunked that story. According to their reports, it seems that Google+ is being not blocked, but "throttled." In other words, you can access it, but it's painfully slow. The Chinese have used this strategy before, and to great effect, says tech website Penn Olson's Steven Millward:

Web throttling is a tactic new to China's Great Firewall, and has been seriously slowing pretty much all overseas internet speeds all year. Gmail particularly has been horribly throttled, to the point were it can take five or ten minutes or more to go from the login page to your inbox. It's a very underhanded tactic by Net Nanny: being seen not to block the service, whilst actually rendering it nearly useless to its users.

Shanghaiist isn't impressed with the research techniques behind the mistaken reports:

Washington Post, and others, are only citing GFW [Great Firewall, the nickname for China's internet censorship firewall] check-up sites like Great Firewall of China and Ping. To give you an idea of how unreliable those tests are, we just tried Google+ again on both, and got an "OKAY" from Ping and a "fail" from Great Firewall.

Sadly, when it comes to censorship, Western news outlets have something of a track record with overzealous reporting. This spring, the lede of a New York Times piece purported to expose Chinese propaganda agents cutting off phone calls at the mention of the word "protest." Shanghai-based journalist (and FP contributor) Adam Minter tested the Times' claims and found them overblown, as did Shanghaiist's Kenneth Tan. Later that day, Times researcher Jonathan Ansfield, who was involved with the piece, left a damning comment on Minter's post:

for the record, the contributing reporter's own tests comport with yours. regrettably his input on the story made little difference.

The next day, the Times published a correction saying that the recipients of the calls cited in the article, who were left anonymous in the article, were both Times reporters in the Beijing bureau, adding:

Because scrutiny of press communications could easily be higher than for those of the public at large, the calls could not be assumed to represent a broader trend; therefore, those examples should not have been given such prominence in the article.

A lesson learned, we hope.

Franko Lee/AFP/Getty Images

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Will the AP's new Pyongyang bureau be allowed to do real reporting?

The Associated Press announced this week that it had reached an agreement with the Korean Central News Agency to set up a bureau in Pyongyang. This would make it the "first permanent text and photo bureau operated by a Western news organization in the North Korean capital (AP Television News has had a Pyongyang bureau for the last five years):

The contract signed this week designates AP as the exclusive distributor of contemporary and historic video from KCNA’s archive, providing a new source of video content from North Korea to AP’s members and customers around the world.

Lord knows this blog is appreciative of new sources of KCNA propaganda footage, but the partnership certainly raises the question of whether the AP will be allowed to do the same kind of high-quality, independent journalism it does in the rest of the world without jeopardizing its North Korean credentials. 

When contacted for comment, the AP's communications office sent along a statement from Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll:

The AP operates independently, regardless of location. Period. We have been able to work from Pyongyang as we do elsewhere, by asking questions and seeking to learn more about a country and its people and then doing stories. Our coverage of North Korea from inside and outside the country has been straightforward, insightful and fair. None of it has ever been censored.

Some of this coverage has included the public introduction of heir apparent Kimg Jong Un,  which AP reporters were invited, along with a small group of western journalists, to attend, and a dispatch from the celebrations for Kim Il Sung's birthday. AP photographers have also put together some stunning images from Pyongyang. 

But as AP Soeul bureau chief Jean Lee writes, even when invited into the country, "Foreign reporters are typically kept on a short leash, restricted to the hotel and the major sights and kept away from North Koreans."

It will be interesting to see whether AP reporters are granted access to events other than government-organized rallies and photo-ops. 

On the other hand, as North Korea expert Bradley Martin suggests to the Global Post, the purpose of the bureau may be less about covering day-to-day news than being in position "The big advantage of being there won't be seen until things fall apart and there's no one else to swing into action and report to the outside world."

That may be true, but they need something to cover in the meantime other than Kim Jong Il Looking at Things.