Google, Others Defend Offerings in China

Internet search leader Google and other major U.S. technology companies insisted Tuesday that their products benefit Chinese citizens despite government restrictions and warnings that online censorship is spreading.

Providing some information is better than giving none at all, the companies said, but human rights groups warned that heavy filtering of Web content is increasing in developing countries -- with some using China as a model.

China denied it censored Internet sites at all, saying criminal investigations are unrelated to freedom of expression.

Human rights groups have sharply criticized Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp., along with network-equipment maker Cisco Systems Inc., accusing them of helping the Chinese government restrict information and crack down on dissidents.

"We concluded that we would prefer to provide as much information to the Chinese people as we could through the Google search engines, in spite of the fact that we also are self-censoring material which the China government tells us we are not to exhibit," said Vint Cerf, an Internet pioneer who is now a Google vice president.

Fred Tipson, senior policy official at Microsoft, said state vigilance in China appeared to be strengthening.

"We have to discuss at what point censorship or persecution of bloggers has reached a point, or monitoring e-mail has reached a point...where it's simply unacceptable to continue to do business there," he said. "We try to define those levels and the trends are not good at the moment. And not just in China."

Amnesty International said it was planning to deliver a petition on Internet freedom to organizers of the U.N.-organized Internet Governance Forum in Athens, where the remarks were made Tuesday.

Rights groups and related agencies warned that online censorship is spreading globally among repressive governments.

"The combination of non-democratic regimes and commercial filtering technology is especially worrying," said Ron Deibert, a political science professor at the University of Toronto and a member of the Open Net Initiative that monitors filtering globally.

The group has labeled China as employing "pervasive" filtering, as well as Iran, Syria, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Burma and Vietnam.

"We have also seen an increase in offensive forms of filtering which attack servers. ... This was observed targeting opposition groups before election time in countries including Belarus and Kyrgystan," Deibert said.

Censorship is a key focus at this week's inaugural Internet Governance Forum, which ends Thursday. Other main issues are related to the security of online networks and the diversity of the Internet as Web growth is predicted to shift to China, India and developing countries.

Yang Xiaokun, a Chinese government representative at the Athens forum, denied all censorship allegations made by major human rights groups.

"We do not have restrictions at all," he said. "Some people say that there are journalists in China that have been arrested. We have hundreds of journalists in China, very few have been arrested. But there are criminals in all societies and we have to arrest them. But these are legal problems. It has nothing to do with freedom of expression."