U.S.-based Internet giant Google is funding high-tech research into software that can detect when and where governments and Internet service providers are interfering with normal Web traffic.
Google on Monday accused the Chinese government of disrupting its e-mail services inside China, as netizens complained of inaccessible accounts and attempts to steal their passwords.
China hit out at the allegations on Tuesday, calling them "unacceptable."
Gmail account holders have been complaining to the California-based company of disruption for several weeks, coinciding with annual parliamentary sessions in Beijing and anonymous calls for protests inspired by recent uprisings in the Middle East, the company said.
But Google said they had detected no technical issues with Gmail.
Google said it suspects Chinese authorities of interfering with Gmail in a way "carefully designed to look like the problem is with Gmail."
According to Wenke Lee, Professor in the School of Computer Science at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a principal investigator on the Google-funded development project, the new software could provide hard evidence to settle such disputes in future.
His team, funded by a U.S. $1 million Google Focused Research Fund, will work on ways to enable Internet users to click a button and determine whether their service was being disrupted or censored.
"At the end of the project, the team hopes to provide a suite of Web-based, Internet-scale measurement tools that any user around the world could access for free," Georgia Tech said in a statement on its website.
"With the help of these tools, users could determine whether their ISPs are providing the kind of service customers are paying for, and whether the data they send and receive over their network connections is being tampered with by governments and/or ISPs," it said.
"If we have a community of Internet user-participants in that country, we will know instantly when a government or ISP starts to block traffic, tamper with search results, even alter web-based information in order to spread propaganda," Lee said.
According to Georgia Tech researchers, some 60 nations including the United States censor some access to information on the Internet.
They say the new tools will cover Internet connections accessed via both computers and cell phones.
“Regardless of what policies an ISP or government takes on issues like censorship and net neutrality, we believe those policies should be transparent,” said Nick Feamster, Assistant Professor in the School of Computer Science.
He said the team wants to make a "transparency watchdog" system that uses monitoring agents to keep constant tabs on network performance and availability in strategic Internet locations around the world.
Beijing has denied allegations of tampering with Google services.
"This is an unacceptable accusation," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a regular news briefing on Tuesday.
Beijing has explicitly forbidden any online content that "endangers state security," "divulges state secrets," or "subverts state power."
Any content that jeopardizes "ethnic unity," interferes with government religious policies, propagates "heretical or superstitious ideas," or "disrupts social stability" is also banned, according to regulations governing China's Internet published last year.
China has also rolled out tough new regulations aimed at monitoring Internet usage in cybercafes across the country in the past year, with many businesses now requiring a swipe of smart ID cards before allowing people online.
China had a total of 457 million Internet users at the end of 2010.
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.