U.S. lawmakers accused four computer companies of collaborating with the Chinese government to help censor the Internet. For their part, company representatives said they believe they are helping promote freer access to information in China.

For Representative Chris Smith, the issue of Internet control in China is clear.

"While the Internet has opened up commercial opportunities and provided access to vast amounts of information for people the world over, the Internet has also become a malicious tool - a cyber-sledgehammer of repression of the government of the Peoples' Republic of China," he said.

His comments came Wednesday at a House Committee on International Relations subcommittee hearing on the Internet in China. The hearing follows recent incidents that involve Chinese government restrictions on the Internet and the willing cooperation of American Internet companies.

Internet search engine Yahoo has come under fire for providing information to the Chinese government that reportedly helped lead to the arrest of two dissidents.

Yahoo's Senior Vice President Michael Callahan said his company condemns any government efforts to punish free expression, but was just following the laws of China.

"We believe these issues are larger than any one company or any one industry," he said. "We all face the same struggle between American values and the laws we must obey."

Critics also point fingers at web search engine Google, which recently introduced a Chinese version of its website, on which it filters out searches for words the Chinese government deems politically sensitive.

Google Vice President Elliot Schrage told the hearing the company made what he called a "difficult" and "imperfect" choice.

"We have determined that we can do the most for our users and do more to expand access to information if we accept the censorship restrictions required by Chinese law," he said.

For Chinese Internet users, Google is offering a Chinese search engine called Google.cn - which Schrage acknowledges does not provide results for politically sensitive searches.

"We are not happy about it, but that's the requirement," Mr. Schrage said. "At the same time, Google.cn has crucial protections for our users. We will provide them disclosure when we are filtering. We will protect their privacy and confidentiality. And, for those users who want to seek unfiltered results, we will make, we will continue to make the unfiltered results available through Google.com."

The two other U.S. companies that sent representatives to the hearing to answer criticism were Cisco Systems and Microsoft.

Chinese government repression of the Internet is tied to the country's ongoing reform and opening efforts, according to the State Department's James Keith.

"There is a debate as to how fast and how far it should go, the scope and pace of reform, I think is certainly debated within China, among the economic ministries and within the ministries responsible for public security," he said. "I think that debate is joined [ongoing], and I think it is certainly the case that we want to appeal to those who are making the case for economic reform and modernization depending on the free flow of information. "

Maximizing global Internet accessibility is a top priority for the U.S. government, which Tuesday introduced a task force to consider the foreign policy implications of Internet freedom around the world.

The State Department's David Gross testified that problems of Internet restriction are not limited to China.

"Although the focus is on China, we should not forget that this is a problem that is broader than China," he said. "And similarly, although we have U.S. companies in focus today, this is a problem that is broader than just U.S. companies."

Gross said in the coming weeks, the new task force will make Internet-related recommendations to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on possible policy and diplomatic initiatives.