US censorship lawsuit against China's Baidu dismissed

Activists had accused Baidu and China of breaking New York laws by censoring searches

A U.S. judge has dismissed a lawsuit that sought to punish Chinese Internet company Baidu for blocking pro-democracy works on its search engine, with one legal expert stating that the case was more of a publicity stunt than an actual legal challenge to China's online censorship.

It is well known that China regularly censors anti-government content on the Internet, with local companies such as Baidu required to comply. But the U.S. lawsuit, filed two years ago by eight pro-democracy activists, claimed that both the company and the Chinese government had violated New York's free speech laws. This was because Baidu's censorship extended to users accessing the site from New York, the lawsuit argued.

On Monday, however, Baidu won dismissal of the case after Judge Jesse Furman of U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York said that the company had not been properly served the court document papers. China, invoking an international treaty, refused to comply with serving the court papers, stating that it would "infringe its sovereignty or security."

The lawsuit's plaintiffs have 30 days to propose another way to serve the court papers to Baidu. Attorneys for the plaintiffs could not immediately be reached for comment. The lawsuit had originally demanded Baidu pay US$16 million in damages for censoring pro-democracy works from the eight activists.

Although the lawsuit had initially grabbed the media spotlight when it was first filed, the case had little chance of holding up in court, said Stan Abrams, a legal expert in China. Baidu is a private foreign company, and has no legal duty to serve users in New York, he added. Instead, the plaintiffs were likely hoping the lawsuit would draw attention to their pro-democracy cause.

"Did they succeed in that or not? I guess we're talking about it, so to that extent they did. But I don't see this as headline news," Abrams said. "It's hard to keep people paying attention because you knew this case was going to lose."

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