Political figures in the US have blasted technology giants such as Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! for failing to appear at a briefing about China's internet censorship. There is now a call for new law to outlaw compliance with such censorship requirements, which would have made it illegal for Google to block access to certain material which the Chinese government deemed unsuitable for its citizens, for example.

Representative Tom Lantos, the California Democrat who is co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, which organised the briefing, said: "These massively successful high-tech companies, which couldn't bring themselves to send their representatives to this meeting today, should be ashamed.

"With all their power and influence, wealth and high visibility, they neglected to commit to the kind of positive action that human rights activists in China take every day. They caved in to Beijing's demands for the sake of profits, or whatever else they choose to call it."

Legislation currently being proposed would require US internet service providers to locate their email servers outside of oppressive countries, establish a code of conduct for companies doing business with such regimes and set up a global internet freedom office within the State Department to co-ordinate an international strategy.

Microsoft and Yahoo! issued a joint statement saying that they hoped that the US government would take a leadership stance in opening "government to government" dialogue with China and other countries. This is potentially a huge issue, which will say a lot about free speech in the 21st century, and how far companies are willing to go to increase their customer base.