28 March 2014

Your First Amendment right to censorship

As some never tire of reminding us, the Bill or Rights in the U.S. Constitution places limitations on the public sector alone. Your "freedom of speech" is violated, for instance, if a government (and some would say only the federal government) tries to prosecute you for non-libelous speech, but not when privately-owned media takes your job away for saying something controversial or offensive. This view of the fundamental law was upheld this week when a federal district court dismissed a lawsuit by emigre Chinese dissidents and their supporters against Baidu, a China-based search engine. The plaintiffs had claimed that Baidu had violated their speech rights by employing an algorithm that blocked Baidu users from getting links to "pro-democracy" websites. Since Baidu can be used by American computer users as well as anyone else on earth, the plaintiffs sought to find the company liable under American law. However, while some may assume that any Chinese company is just a tool of the Chinese government, the American court treated it as a private company. As such, it has a right to editorial control over its search engine as a form of political expression in its own right. To deny a private entity like Baidu that prerogative, the presiding judge ruled, "would contravene the principle upon which [the American] political system and cultural life rest." That principle is "each person should decide for himself or herself the ideas and beliefs deserving of expression, consideration, and adherence." 

Intellectually, the ruling is slightly problematic because it puts the right of Baidu to "decide for itself" over the presumed rights of its users -- but since we're still talking about the U.S., those users can opt for other search engines if Baidu proves too restrictive. Philosophically, I don't care very much for the implication that no one really has to listen to anyone else if they don't want to. That notion of individual rights falls a little short of democratic ideals of mutual respect and mutual accountability. It also raises a dystopian specter of a totally privatized world and how little freedom people might actually have under such a social system, which is a strange conclusion to draw from a legal victory for what could be seen as a propaganda arm for a communist dictatorship. It might not have surprised Orwell, however, since in Animal Farm he imagined a convergence of totalitarian and plutocratic interests when the pigs partied with the farmers while the other animals suffered. Neither group really wants to listen to the little guy, but as long as we have a "public square" somewhere people can try to be heard. Lawyers for the plaintiffs tried to equate Baidu with a public square but the court didn't buy the idea. Agree with that or not, you may still wonder how much longer we'll have public squares. The answer may be that we'll have them as long as we're willing to make them.


Anonymous said...

"each person should decide for himself or herself the ideas and beliefs deserving of expression, consideration, and adherence."

And yet the justice contradicts his statement with his ruling. By allowing Baidu to decide for others what ideas and beliefs those others are allowed access to.

What isn't clear to me is: whether the Chinese dissidents in question are still in China. If so, why would an American court even take the case? If they are NOT in China, then why, as you suggest, would they simply not use another search engine? This sounds more like goldbrickers than dissidents.

Anonymous said...

" Philosophically, I don't care very much for the implication that no one really has to listen to anyone else if they don't want to."
The alternative would seem to be that you are forced to listen to what others have to say no matter how stupid, ignorant, hateful or deceitful their words may be.

Samuel Wilson said...

10:16: As far as I can tell the plaintiffs were emigres living in the U.S. -- or else they wouldn't have standing in a U.S. court. I assume they went after Baidu because it's the search engine most Chinese use.

10:19: You can't tell whether someone's words are stupid, ignorant etc. until you hear them in the first place. Whether someone should be ablt to inflict the same opinions on everyone after they've been proven stupid, ignorant etc. is another matter.

Anonymous said...

I most certainly don't need to hear Fred Phelps preach to know what he has to say is stupid, ignorant and hateful. I don't need to hear what ANY religious person has to say because I already know it is bullpuckies. And I most certainly should not have to be forced to listen to the stupidity and ignorance of morons. Life is too short and miserable as it is.

I feel quite the opposite. If people have nothing intelligent to say, it is my feeling they should simply keep their mouths shut.

Samuel Wilson said...

4:44: I can see how you might ignore someone if he has a "Rev." in front of his name, but in other cases how do you tell someone is a moron before he opens his mouth?

Anonymous said...

If he/she claims to be a Libertarian or wears a small elephant button on his/her lapel. Those are usually pretty good signs. If they're wearing a t-shirt that says "I'm with stupid" and the arrow points up - that's usually a pretty good sign as well.