Google and Microsoft on Wednesday tried to deflect criticism of their business practices in China by calling on the US government to take a more active role in promoting freedom in the communist country through “government-to-government” engagement.

The comments were made as the companies, along with Cisco and Yahoo, have come under intense scrutiny in Washington because of allegations that the groups’ adherence to Chinese censorship rules and other regulations represented a capitulation to China’s government.

Ongoing questions about the compromises internet and technology companies make in order to do business in China came to a head last week when Google announced that it was launching a China-based website that would censor some results.

The companies on Wednesday each declined invitations to appear before a Congressional meeting to discuss the issue, but Google in a statement said it believed its engagement in China was the best “and perhaps only” way for the company to bring the benefits of universal information access to its users there.

Andrew McLaughlin, Google’s senior policy counsel, said the company sought to balance its commitment to users and local laws by improving disclosure when items were censored, by only providing services once Google was confident it could protect personal information, and by investing in China.

But Google also said the US had a role in addressing the “larger issues” of free expression, and said it had encouraged the government to treat censorship as a barrier to trade.

The sentiment was echoed by Microsoft and Yahoo, which said in a joint statement that the US government should “take a leadership role” by engaging with the Chinese government on the issues.

The companies have agreed to appear at a formal hearing later this month.

Separately, Bill Gates, Microsoft’s chairman, on Wednesday said at a forum in Lisbon that attempts by governments to censor the internet would ultimately fail.

“You may be able to take a very visible website and say that something shouldn’t be there, but if there’s a desire by the population to know something, it’s going to get out,” he said.

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