Baidu, the largest search engine in China, is free to censor its search results to remove Web pages viewed as detrimental to China's leadership, a U.S. District Court in New York has ruled. Judge Jesse Furman said that in spite of complaints that the filtered search results infringed on free speech, the censorship itself is also a form of protected free speech.

Suppression of information in China is well known, and the country's Great Firewall is considered the most sophisticated Internet censorship system in the world. Even though the U.S. does not support those activities, Furman ruled that from a legal standpoint a search engine is like a newspaper, both of which can choose to post whatever content they want, even if it is one-sided.

Internet Censorship

Eight activists in the United States filed the lawsuit in 2011 after Baidu censored pro-democracy content that the activists and others had worked on. While search engines like Google do not filter these results in China, Baidu does, which has led many people to claim that the company works with the Chinese government.

The plaintiffs demanded that the search engine pay $16 million in damages, primarily because the censorship resulted in less traffic to the Web pages that were filtered out. Since the First Amendment of the Constitution protects free speech, Furman decided that forcing Baidu to include certain types of content would not be legal.

"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," Furman wrote in his ruling.

Since Baidu has 500 million regular users in China, it is not surprising that content creators and activists oppose censorship on the search engine on the grounds of free speech. At the same time, Baidu's attorneys praised Furman's decision as protecting free speech.

"It shows that our courts protect Relevant Products/Services the right of all media to choose what they publish," said Baidu's attorney Carey Ramos. "That right extends to Internet media as well as print media."

Appeal Expected

The battle between Baidu and the activists was plagued by delays after a first lawsuit was dismissed by Furman last year because Baidu had not been served court papers. The activists said they plan to appeal the ruling.

Stephen Preziosi, a lawyer for the activists, criticized 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," Preziosi said.

He said Furman's newspaper analogy didn't work. Instead, Preziosi said, the search engine is more like a "town square, where pretty much anyone can go and say what he wants."