The Obama administration lodged a formal protest on Wednesday with the Chinese government over its plan to force all computers sold in China to come with software that blocks access to certain Web sites.
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Ron Kirk, the trade representative, sent a letter to officials in two Chinese ministries asking them to rescind a rule about the software that is set to take effect on July 1.
Chinese officials have said that the filtering software, known as Green Dam-Youth Escort, is meant to block pornography and other “unhealthy information.”
In part, the American officials’ complaint framed this as a trade issue, objecting to the burden put on computer makers to install the software with little notice. But it also raised broader questions about whether the software would lead to more censorship of the Internet in China and restrict freedom of expression.
“China is putting companies in an untenable position by requiring them, with virtually no public notice, to pre-install software that appears to have broad-based censorship implications and network security issues,” Mr. Locke said in a news release. The government did not release the text of the letter.
The letter, by two cabinet-rank officials, represents an escalation of the concern over the software plan. Last week United States officials met with their Chinese counterparts in Beijing to raise objections to the new policy.
Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, one of several trade groups that have objected to the Chinese plan, said the letter represented a significant change in American policy.
“The issue of Internet freedom and openness was something that should have been at the top of the U.S. international agenda and hasn’t been,” Mr. Black said. “This administration is far more in tune with and ready to support Internet openness.”
China already has an elaborate system that blocks access to sites that discuss delicate topics like the Dalai Lama and Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement.
In their statement, the American officials rejected the argument that the software was simply a way to block pornography.
"Protecting children from inappropriate content is a legitimate objective, but this is an inappropriate means and is likely to have a broader scope,” Mr. Kirk said in the statement. “Mandating technically flawed Green Dam software and denying manufacturers and consumers freedom to select filtering software is an unnecessary and unjustified means to achieve that objective.”
Security experts have expressed concerns that once installed, the software might also be used to block other sorts of content or even to monitor the online activities of citizens.
The letter suggested that China’s move might violate World Trade Organization rules because American companies were given only six weeks’ notice to comply. While formal complaints to the trade organization are difficult and cumbersome, pointing to the regulations is another signal that the United States will continue to pursue the issue.
With only one week before the new rules are to go into effect, it is unclear if American computer companies will comply.
Pamela Bonney, a spokeswoman for Hewlett-Packard, said the company was still studying the rules and seeking clarification. A spokesman for Dell did not return calls seeking comment.
Separately, access to Google’s main search engine at Google.com and other services like Gmail was temporarily blocked in China on Wednesday. It was restored a few hours later.
Access to foreign Web sites in China can be erratic, and determining whether the government is responsible can be difficult.
It is not clear whether the blocking of Google’s sites is related to a dispute that erupted last week between Google and Chinese authorities. The Chinese government disabled some search functions of Google’s Chinese-language search engine, Google.cn, saying the site offered too many links to pornographic material.
Google’s license to operate in China requires that it not show pornographic sites.