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.