The Bush administration is increasing pressure on China to reduce censorship of the internet and lift other restrictions, a human rights issue that has recently shone an unflattering light on the complicity of some US companies operating abroad.

The State Department said it was creating a new inter-agency task force that would, with the help of US companies and human rights groups, examine policy and diplomatic initiatives to maximise access to the internet in China and other repressive regimes, and to minimise efforts by governments to block information.

?The internet has proven to be a force multiplier for freedom and a censor?s nightmare as efforts by repressive regimes have failed to fully restrict or block growth and access to the internet,? said Josette Shiner, undersecretary of state for economic affairs. ?Nevertheless, there are severe challenges to this openness.?

The task force will tackle an issue that has ensnared a host of US internet and technology companies, including Yahoo and Google. They have agreed to varying degrees to comply with Chinese censorship rules and other restrictions in order to enter the Chinese market.

Yahoo has been singled out by some human rights groups after it was accused by activists of giving Chinese authorities personal information about users of its e-mail service ? actions that have led to the imprisonment of two Chinese dissidents. The company this week acknowledged that compliance with Chinese laws had led to some ?serious and distressing consequences? but has emphasised that the issue is too big for one company, or one industry, to address on its own.

Ms Shiner underscored that point yesterday and said the challenges posed by Chinese restrictions on free speech were a priority for the State Department.

?This is a challenge not only for our companies but for our citizens abroad [and] for [the] American government as we seek to affirm the principles of human rights and access to information, human dignity and human freedom,? she said, adding that the State Department would have a ?robust dialogue? with the companies involved and the Congress.

She said the task force would examine the foreign policy aspects of internet freedom, the use of technology to restrict access to political content and track dissidents, and efforts to ?modify internet governance structures? to restrict information.

The announcement was made as executives from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco prepare to give testimony today on their activities in China before a House subcommittee on human rights.

Christopher Smith, who chairs the committee, is drafting legislation that could force companies such as Yahoo to keep their ?e-mail servers outside the borders of countries with repressive governments. Google, which has agreed to censor results on its Chinese website, has already said it would not provide Chinese users with e-mail services as long as it is not confident that it could protect its users? privacy rights.

??A spokesman for China?s foreign ministry defended the country?s internet controls on Tuesday, Reuters reports from Beijing.

?China manages the internet according to the law in order to limit as much as possible the spread of illegal, immoral or harm?ful information,? the spokes?mansaid.

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