Chinese search giant Baidu has evaded a lawsuit launched in the US by a pro-democracy group who claimed that the search engine was illegally suppressing political speech.
The New York residents, who advocate for greater democracy in China, said that Baidu was unlawfully blocking US articles and information about the democracy movement in China and related topics. The claimed that Baidu had implemented algorithms on behalf of the Chinese government to block its users from seeing these political topics.
The plaintiffs were looking for $16m in damages for violations of their civil rights.
But the district court judge ruled that the First Amendment protected search results as free speech and dismissed the case.
"Allowing plaintiffs to sue Baidu for what are in essence editorial judgements about which political ideas to promote would run afoul of the First Amendment," Judge Jesse Furman wrote in his ruling, pointing out that users dissatisfied with Baidu's search results did have the option to search using another engine like Google or Bing.
Furman also said that there was a strong argument to be made that the First Amendment protected any search results from "most, if not all" types of civil liabilities or government regulations.
"The central purpose of a search engine is to retrieve relevant information from the vast universe of data on the Internet and to organise it in a way that would be most helpful to the searcher. In doing so, search engines inevitably make editorial judgments about what information (or kinds of information) to include in the results and how and where to display that information," the judge wrote.
"To allow plaintiffs' suit to proceed, let alone to hold Baidu liable for its editorial judgments, would contravene the principle upon which our political system and cultural life rest: That each person should decide for himself or herself the ideas and beliefs deserving of expression, consideration and adherence."
Stephen Preziosi, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that they planned to appeal the ruling.
"The court has laid out a perfect paradox: That it will allow the suppression of free speech, in the name of free speech," he told Reuters. ®