updated 10/31/2006 3:08:03 PM ET 2006-10-31T20:08:03

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 technology provider 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, a Google vice president.

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

"It is a point at which point you decide the Chinese people are worse off for having this service in their country," he said.

"We have to discuss at what point censorship or persecution of bloggers has reached a point, or monitoring email has reached a point ... where it's simply unacceptable to continue to do business there. 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 security of online networks and diversity of the Internet as Web growth is predicted to shift to China, India and developing countries.

Julien Pain of the group Reporters Without Borders said Web censors were gaining strength in many of those growth countries and that their main target was not dissidents but keeping information from the general population.

"Internet censorship is really spreading around the world," he said. "Ten years ago, the Internet was not important for an African dictator. ... Now China is a model for these countries and their model is spreading around the world."

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."

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