Chinese search engine, operating in the U.S., has First Amendment right to skew search results for political reasons


A man looks at the company logo of Baidu as he walks past their headquarters in Beijing in March 2010. (David Gray/Reuters)

So held federal District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan in yesterday’s Zhang v. Baidu, Inc. (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2014). An excerpt (one paragraph break added):

In this suit, a group of New York residents who advocate for increased democracy in China sue one of China’s largest companies, Baidu, Inc…. Plaintiffs contend that Baidu, which operates an Internet search engine akin to Google, unlawfully blocks from its search results here in the United States articles and other information concerning “the Democracy movement in China” and related topics.

The case raises the question of whether the First Amendment protects as speech the results produced by an Internet search engine. The Court concludes that, at least in the circumstances presented here, it does. Accordingly, allowing Plaintiffs to sue Baidu for what are in essence editorial judgments about which political ideas to promote would run afoul of the First Amendment….

The central purpose of a search engine is to retrieve relevant information from the vast universe of data on the Internet and to organize 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 (for example, on the first page of the search results or later). In these respects, a “search engine’s editorial judgment is much like many other familiar editorial judgments,” such as the newspaper editor’s judgment of which wire-service stories to run and where to place them in the newspaper, the guidebook writer’s judgments about which attractions to mention and how to display them, and Matt Drudge’s judgments about which stories to link and how prominently to feature them….

[Plaintiffs] they seek to hold Baidu liable for, and thus punish Baidu for, a conscious decision to design its search-engine algorithms to favor certain expression on core political subjects over other expression on those same political subjects. To allow such a suit to proceed would plainly “violate[] the fundamental rule of protection under the First Amendment, that a speaker has the autonomy to choose the content of his own message.”

[Footnote:] That Plaintiffs allege that Baidu exercises editorial judgment “in cooperation with and according to the policies and regulations of” China makes no difference to the analysis. Plaintiffs allege that Baidu “purposely designs its systems and search engines to exclude” specific content. Whether it does so at the behest, or in furtherance of the interests, of China does not bear on the nature or extent of Baidu’s First Amendment rights….

There is no irony in holding that Baidu’s alleged decision to disfavor speech concerning democracy is itself protected by the democratic ideal of free speech. As the Supreme Court has explained, “[t]he First Amendment does not guarantee that … concepts virtually sacred to our Nation as a whole … will go unquestioned in the marketplace of ideas.” For that reason, 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. Indeed, “[i]f there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”

I’m pleased to say that the opinion relies extensively on our own Stuart Benjamin’s “Algorithms and Speech,” and on my Google-commissioned white paper, “First Amendment Protection for Search Engine Search Results.” Both the analysis in Stuart’s article and the analysis in my paper would yield the same result as that reached by the court.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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Eugene Volokh · March 28