Chinese search giant Baidu in some US legal (bai)doo-doo

16 Comments

This is clever.

So a few years ago Google enters China and is put under a global grilling lamp on whether or not it will adhere to local laws regarding censorship and its search results. Don’t Be Evil held for a little while, but 300+ million Chinese Internet users was bound to make anyone check their morals at the gate eventually. But then, after floundering around in the country for a few years, they largely said, “F this, we’re out!“.

So a few years ago Baidu enters the US market. That the search engine filters search results to suit Beijing goes relatively unnoticed, as does actual usage of the company for anything other than investment purposes. Routinely noise gets made about Baidu distributing copyrighted this and that, and Baidu just as routinely starts blocking access to those functions for visitors coming from outside of China. Happy medium.

Then today a couple folks in Flushing, NY, get a smart idea — if Google was forced to adhere to the laws of China while operating inside the country, shouldn’t Baidu have to adhere to the laws of the US while operating there?

Baidu Inc., owner of China’s most popular search engine, was sued by eight Chinese residents of New York who say the company helps the government censor political expression in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The plaintiffs seek $16 million in damages from the company and the Chinese government after their “writings, publications and coverage of pro-democracy events” were censored and banned from Baidu’s search engine, according to a complaint filed yesterday in Manhattan federal court. They also charge Baidu and China violated New York State civil rights laws.

I firmly believe that both Google and Baidu should be allowed to decide what content their product contains or doesn’t contain, and I don’t particularly feel the government — any government — has the right to tell them what they must or mustn’t include. They are not public services, but businesses, and as such should have the right to run their businesses and their products the way they want. However, I applaud these 海外华人 for having used the US legal system to force open an issue that deserves more attention.

Will (and should?) Baidu, as Google did, bow to the legal pressures in the country they want to operate in and UNcensor content for American users? Will it turn away from expansion and instead push further inward and help march China’s Internet ever closer to becoming an intranet? Will it settle (with help from a suitcase full of RMB that happens to show up on their corporate doorstep) and continue on as before?

Thoughts?

Talk on Chinese search giant Baidu in some US legal (bai)doo-doo


16 Comments
  1. “Will it turn away from expansion and instead push further inward and help march China’s Internet ever closer to becoming an intranet?”

    Before you get too far into this point…. Baidu’s push further? Huh? You’re describing people actually using Baidu outside of China?

    Let me tell you one major advatage that Baidu has over Google in China: it’s super fast. Having a local .cn URL makes the site load up superfast in China. Beyond that, there is no reason to use Baidu. There’s no reason for someone in New York City, or LA to look at Baidu. Google.com, on the other hand, is going to be slow, and Google.com.hk, is going to be in traditional characters. Chinese just want speed.

    You want Americans to use the ripoff version, when they already have Google (eg. at full speed)? Exactly, it’s not happening. None of my friends back home know what Baidu is, unless they’re working in Securities, etc.

    Now, as for the actual question, hell yes, the copycats should be held to account. If they want to be treated like adults, yes they should be held to the local laws.

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      Not sure I understand the “copycats” bit. I mean, it’s a pretty big can to open to say Baidu is a copycat. Other than being completely revolutionary in how it gets results, Google’s a search engine like the bazillion others it has slowly shut down over the years (any late 90s HotBot fans out there?).

      But I agree, usership outside of China for Baidu is pretty much a non-starter – ATM. However, there’s plenty of possibility and precedent for expanded usership outside of China, and not necessarily just in the Chinese diaspora circles. You can bet the company is thinking about it if not actively pursuing it (I’m decently sure they’re well past thinking about it).

      As for accountability, I think you spelled out exactly why nothing will come of it — Baidu “operates” in China. I’m not sure trading its stock on US markets is enough to give New York or the US at large any jurisdiction over what rules Baidu follows. I think it would need servers or offices physically in the US, which I’m not aware of them having.

  2. Maybe Baidu should do what google did and move its services to the US equivalent of Hong Kong. Say like… Puerto Rico?

  3. 小小寰球,有几个苍蝇碰壁。
    On the tiny globe, there are several flies runing up against the stone wall.

  4. “I firmly believe that both Google and Baidu should be allowed to decide what content their product contains or doesn’t contain…”

    Oh really? What about newspapers, then? Or the BBC or CNN?

    If it hasn’t already surpassed the television and other media networks, Google’s access to the public should certainly be on a par with them. As you are no doubt aware, where a website is ranked on Google – if ranked at all – can have a significant impact upon their visitor numbers. If Baidu is operating in the U.S. and especially if it is listed on one or more U.S. stock exchanges, of course its operations within the country should be subject to U.S. law.

    Private it may be, but they operate in the public domain.

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      “Oh really? What about newspapers, then? Or the BBC or CNN?”

      Absolutely them as well. Why would a media company not have every right to control what content they produce? Public good? Not their business. If they are not producing a product that the public feels accurately reflects what their media should be, the public can quite easily go elsewhere and get their media. Should we, as consumers, expect Google (and media outlets) to be open and uncensored, absolutely. And because they are a business and sensitive to their consumers’ needs, they are. If they decide they want to only return listings for “Make Money Now” sites when you search for “cute cat videos”, then you would simply not use them. This is precisely why we use Google, and why it has remained so popular, it provides an excellent product. The moment that changes, its success or its formula will change as well.

      Google has the power in public it has not because it was given it (as in Baidu’s case) but because it earned it by providing the best service. The moment that changes, people will go elsewhere. We live in a world with an endless supply of options and the companies that feed us media only have as much power as we give them.

      You’re right about traffic — Google sends more traffic to this site than any other single source, by a large margin. But you’re not putting value on that traffic. Little of that traffic stays on the site for long (as most are looking for nude photos of Zhang Ziyi), and almost none of it contributes to the site in any productive way (leaving comments, clicking ads, etc.). Google Rank is important, as any SEO expert will be happy to extol, but not nearly as important as the content of that site and its reputation in the community it is serving.

      If Baidu is operating in the U.S. and especially if it is listed on one or more U.S. stock exchanges, of course its operations within the country should be subject to U.S. law.

      I thought it was operating on the Internet. Where is the Internet? Does American access to a site mean that the site must adhere to American laws? Unless they have an office in the US or their servers are hosted on US servers, I don’t think US law has any jurisdiction, or should. As that relates to being listed on US stock exchanges, I’m really not sure as I know next to nothing about the criteria of being listed. When you buy stock on the NASDAQ, does the company you’re purchasing a piece of need to be American? I don’t think it does (as a previous comment indicated that Baidu is registered in the Caymans), but I really have no idea.

  5. So, to list on a US stock exchange your company has to comply with all sorts of American (and arguably internationally accepted) accounting and disclosure practices. I expect this requirement stems from a desire to protect the buyers’ interests and the reputation of the stock exchange. Having been up to my elbows in printouts of derivatives transactions for one of my previous employers, based in Tokyo, I can tell you with absolute certainty that some laws and regulations have to be complied with if you want to list. (Some may be limited to listed financial institutions.)

    And if a company or service reaches a certain size or degree of popularity (again BBC, Google), by maintaining a pretense of providing ALL of your information/search/news needs and failing to do so, yes, I believe they would
    be failing to perform a fundamental duty that IS and SHOULD be required of them.

    If I were in a position to publicly reprimand them for conveniently leaving out one particular – major – issue, as though it had never happened, then I would absolutely give them their dues. “With great power comes great responsibility.” What they have is power, power over the people, over public opinion. The only reason it might be acceptable to ignore such shortcomings would be because other networks would not only cover the story, they would also pick up on their failure to do so. If it’s the local newspaper for a town of fifty people I won’t be losing any sleep over it, but Google, BBC and CNN are in a different league and should and must be treated as such.

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      I guess where my back gets raised is where to draw the line that separates different leagues. How do we apply rules, which at this level would have to be laws, to those arbitrary lines? In my opinion, we live in a world where the only power any media provider has over us is the power which we give it. I don’t at all believe this was always the case, but rather a product of how interconnected we are, and how relatively easily media is produced now. And I’m definitely not saying we, as consumers, shouldn’t hold the businesses accountable for anything we believe is neglectful, but I think that we hold them accountable with our consumption, not by building more laws and creating more bureaucracy. Where I do think the stewards of the public good (ie. the government) needs to step in is in assuring that there is no monopoly on sources of media. Making sure we all have an unfettered and unbiased connection to the Internet being the main way of doing that, anti-monopoly laws being another, freedom of speech/freedom of press yet another. The reason I disagree with forcing a media source like Google or BBC to list or cover certain sites or stories, is that’s not a free press — that’s a press being told what to print. Most liberties are taken away under the guise of “for the public good”.

      As for getting listed — that’s just one business holding other businesses to rules of doing business. That’s not legal (as in resulting in criminal action), that’s just the rules of the game. If they don’t play by the rules, they can’t play in that sandbox. And just like the NYSE has every right to decide what businesses it does and does not list, Google should (and does) have every right to decide the same with their products and services.

      • I understand where you’re coming from and don’t necessarily disagree. In practice, however, the world just isn’t that sweet and people aren’t necessarily that smart – or willing – to check multiple sources just to confirm a story.

        What about education? The debate between the Japanese and Chinese over the Nanjing “massacre” or “incident” is but one example. The dispute over Taiwan being an independent nation or Chinese province another. I once met a very intelligent professor from Peking University (PKU Undergraduate, Masters and PhD student) who admitted learning that people outside of the Taiwanese themselves also believe Taiwan to be a separate nation for the very first time when she travelled to the United States recently. At 25 years old. Anybody who has lived in China knows that a VPN service isn’t that hard to find and also that there are loopholes in the Great Firewall. Her English being excellent, she didn’t have to depend solely upon Chinese websites, either. Further still, there was an abundance of international students on campus…

        My point? The assumption that the majority of people will take everything with a grain of salt, and think twice before accepting news reports as factual statements, is a very dangerous one. People don’t necessarily have the time to think that much, even if they do have the common sense. That is my issue with simply “Google-ing” something and accepting the information on the very first listed page as gospel.

        I suggest not that the governments of the world restrict publication of certain stories, although there is undoubtedly some degree of manipulation behind the scenes in every country. Instead, they might consider clear guidelines on what should /not/ be filtered or blocked entirely. I know for a fact that Google has teams of staff specifically assigned to weeding out offending sites that their algorithms cannot, and that this would further increase their burden as it creates a ‘rulebook’ that offenders can work around. But just as a newspaper would be reprimanded for inaccurate articles or the failure to cover a major story, the same must apply to Google and the major global news networks.

        Nobody is forcing them to operate. Nobody is forcing them to publish news or rank search results. That is their choice. Just as you wrote that companies wanting to be listed must do so, shouldn’t Google and the news networks also ‘play by the rules’? I am not looking for the end of free speech and appreciate that this is a very slippery slope, but their influence is simply too great to ignore. Want access to OUR public? Then play by OUR rules. End of story.

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          I think your example works towards my point — the reason the professor from PKU didn’t have this knowledge wasn’t because of a company filtering their product, it was because all media that the person could be exposed to was filtered at a level higher than any one company. If the Internet in China were free and open and Baidu continued to censor search results, but another search engine started up and embraced this new freedom and started not censoring their search results, would Baidu last without changing? I don’t think they would.

          I don’t disagree with trying to foster an environment whereby we the public are guaranteed good and fair information, I just don’t feel stewardship of ideas is the way to do it. We would need a government regulatory committee to oversee all media outlets (or Web sites) of a certain size, we would need to trust that they are also working in the interests of the public interests, so presumably they would also need overseers (who watches the watchmen? hehe). There would need to be a framework for 1) choosing which issues are “must cover/carry” topics that is democratic and not simply decided by the committee of stewards hired or elected to manage such things, 2) this would need to be ongoing as new media has opened the door to more coverage of more things, and all of them would have to be considered in this way, 3) the penalties for non-compliance would also need to be spelled out and enforcement would need to be delegated.

          To me the more of the picture that is drawn, the more it appears to be closer to the system in China than I would feel comfortable with.

          A better solution, in my opinion, would be to simply make sure an environment exists where competition between media is fair and fierce. Make sure that I have equal access to MSNBC, Al Jazeera, BBC, Fox News and CCTV9 as well as any other media outlet that decides to enter the market. Then, the only thing that is needed is education of the public to be wary of any one media source. Will people end up believing the “wrong” media source? Will people still have “wrong” ideas? Will there still be folks in Japan who deny the Nanjing Massacre? Nazi-sympathizers and Islamic fundies who choose to believe the Holocaust never happened? Folks who believe that Sarah Palin would make an excellent first woman president of the US? Absolutely, and that should be their right — so long as they have equal and unfettered access to all sides (whether they choose to use that access or not). As long as we live in an environment where everyone has equal access to multiple media sources, we are bound to rub up against others with different views that will challenge and expand our own. Anything more controlling than that when it comes to what version of “truth” is the right one to feed the public makes me itch.

      • You certainly make a good point, and more oversight is not necessarily better oversight. That said, I guess my point is that if people don’t know or care to look for the differences, they’ll never notice them. And failure to notice is precisely what leads to that very special breed of individual who believes Sarah Palin would make a good president.

        And you write as though there is no censorship or stewardship at the moment in our ‘free market’ of media, when I think we can all agree that there is plenty both inside and outside of China… which leaves me equally uncomfortable. I agree that creating committee after committee is not going to solve the problem, at least not efficiently or without great cost to the taxpayer, but nor do I believe that free market principles can necessarily be applied to the world of information without sacrifices.

        As far as I can tell most people in the UK read the same newspaper and watch the same news network as their parents, just because that’s what they’ve grown up doing. They’re not making a conscious decision, just going with the flow. I suspect individuals such as yourself, Ryan, are much more conscious of the media and frequently use the internet to explore and/or confirm certain stories. Or perhaps you use it to check the news in the first place. But that is a small, small proportion of the world population.

        Perhaps there simply is no perfect solution, just the lesser of two evils.

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          I think your last line nails it. I agree that there is no lack of laziness when it comes to what most people think or believe. I guess I’m just a bit nervous about suggesting that we take on responsibility for that laziness. My fear is that by enabling that laziness to continue, by protecting it from the reality (media being used to inaccurately reflect one side or view) only sets up people to be more complacent and uncritical in their thinking — sort of a “the safety nets of society/gov’t will protect me, I need not be diligent”.

          I definitely see what you’re saying though, and there’s no denying that most the population spends little time thinking about such things. We’re all still new to the new media world though, so perhaps the critical thinking required in a world with a wider swath of media to choose from will evolve in time.

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