US judge rules Baidu's censorship is protected as free speech

The lawsuit sought to punish Baidu for blocking pro-democracy works from its search engine

A U.S. judge has ruled that the Chinese search engine Baidu has the right to block pro-democracy works from its query results, dismissing a lawsuit that sought to punish the company for Internet censorship.

The lawsuit against Baidu, originally filed in 2011 by eight activists in New York, claimed that the Chinese search engine had violated U.S. laws on free speech. This was because Baidu had been censoring pro-democracy works on its search engine for not only its users in China, but also for those accessing the site from New York.

The lawsuit demanded Baidu pay US$16 million in damages. But on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled against the activists, and said requiring Baidu to include pro-democracy works in its search results would "run afoul" of the U.S.'s free speech laws.

In his ruling, Furman compared Baidu's blocking of pro-democracy works to a newspaper's right to exercise "editorial control" to publish what it wants. In Baidu's case, the company has created a search engine that favors certain political speech.

"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," wrote Furman.

Baidu is also not stopping U.S. users from accessing the pro-democracy works through other search engines such as Google or Bing, the judge added.

On Friday, the Chinese search company did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But the law firm representing Baidu in the case said the ruling was a victory for the free speech rights of Internet search engines.

"It shows that our courts protect the right of all media to choose what they publish," said attorney Carey Ramos in a statement. "That right extends to Internet media as well as print media. And it protects Chinese media as much as American media."

The activists who filed the lawsuit against Baidu could not be reached for comment.

Last year in March, Furman had initially dismissed the lawsuit because Baidu was not properly served court papers, but later the case was allowed to proceed.

Baidu is China's largest search engine, with a 61 percent share over the market, according to Internet analytics site CNZZ.com. But the company, like others in the country, is required to comply with the nation's strict regulations over Internet content. Google for a time also obeyed these rules, but in 2010 the company decided to shutdown its China-based search engine following ongoing disputes with the nation's censorship rules.

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