US Southern District of New York Judge Jesse Furman yesterday dismissed a lawsuit against Chinese search-engine service Baidu, the fifth most visited website in the world, which hosts an English-language service in the United States. The lawsuit alleged that, by hiding content considered anti-China from search results, Baidu was engaging in unconstitutional censorship. The lawsuit was brought by a group of content editors in New York proclaiming themselves supporters of democracy in China seeking USD 16 million in damages, and upon the ruling their lawyer Stephen Preziosi stated that “the court has laid out a perfect paradox: that it will allow the suppression of free speech, in the name of free speech.”
Google, Inc. has previously defended the right of search-engine companies to selectively present content, or present content based on their own standards, commissioning UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh in 2012 to write a report arguing that this practice of “editorial oversight” is covered under the First Amendment. Mr. Furman, in dismissing the suit, seemed to agree with this analysis, writing that “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.” Regardless of one’s opinion on this ruling, in the context of the hegemony and monopolization of the global media, this sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to increase the “echo-chamber” effect of tailored search results. Perhaps the best remedy is greater transparency in how search results are displayed, but this is unlikely to be forthcoming without consumer demand.