US Court Says Baidu Has Free Speech Right To Censor Search

Baidu logoLate last week, Chinese search engine Baidu succeeded in gaining dismissal of a lawsuit by pro-democracy activists based in New York (Zhang et al. v. Baidu.com, Inc). Plaintiffs had sued in the US and argued that Baidu improperly blocked them from seeing content on the search engine.

Specifically, according to Reuters, the plaintiffs said that people in the US couldn’t access content (including their work) advocating greater openness and democracy in China. Among other remedies, they were seeking $16 million in damages.

Ironically, the US District Court judge said that Baidu’s right to censor its search results was protected under the First Amendment to the US Constitution — which generally protects and promotes free speech and is an anti-censorship provision. According to Reuters’ discussion of the judge’s ruling, he opined:

“The First Amendment protects Baidu’s right to advocate for systems of government other than democracy (in China or elsewhere) just as surely as it protects plaintiffs’ rights to advocate for democracy.” 

The judge reiterated the rationale that kept the FTC from pursuing a vertical-search antitrust case against Google: search results and search algorithms are an “editorial judgment” protected by the Constitution. Accordingly they cannot be regulated or the basis of civil liability in the US. 

This rationale and rule isn’t equally recognized in other countries around the world.

The plaintiffs said they plan to appeal the decision. However the appeal is unlikely to succeed.