Searching Freedom

I have already blogged (here and here) about the debate on whether the output of search engines such as Google should be protected by constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression, summarizing arguments by Eugene Volokh and Josh Blakcman. These arguments are no longer merely the stuff of academic debate. As both prof. Volokh and prof. Blackman report, the U.S. District Court for the South District of New York has yesterday endorsed the position (which prof. Volokh and others defend) that search results are indeed entitled to First Amendment protection, in Zhang v. Baidu. Although I do not normally comment on American judicial decisions, this one is worth looking at, because it both gives us an idea of the issues that are likely to arise in Canada sooner rather than later, and can serve as a reminder that these issues will have to be approached somewhat differently from the way they are in the United States.

Zhang was a suit by a group of pro-democracy activists who were claiming that Baidu, a Chinese search engine, is acting illegally in excluding from the search results it displays in the United States results that have to do with the Chinese democracy movement and a number of topics such as the Tiananmen Square protests, including articles the plaintiffs themselves had written. The plaintiffs alleged that, in doing so, Baidu engages in censorship at the behest of the Chinese government. Legally, they claimed that Baidu conspired to violate and violated their civil rights under federal and state law.

Baidu moved to dismiss, arguing that the constitutional protection of freedom of speech applied to its search results, preventing the imposition of liability. Relying on jurisprudence protecting a speaker’s right to choose the contents of his message, and in particular not to convey a message it did not want to convey (whether a newspaper’s right not to print a reply from a candidate for public office whom it criticized or a parade organizers’ right not to allow the participation of a group they disagreed with), the Court agreed:

In light of those principles, there is a strong argument to be made that the First Amendment fully immunizes search-engine results from most, if not all, kinds of civil liability and government regulation. … 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). (7)

The search engines’ “editorial judgments” are constitutionally protected, in the same way as the editorial judgments of newspapers, guidebook authors, or any other speakers who choose what message or information to convey.

Nor does the fact that search-engine results may be produced algorithmically matter for the analysis. After all, the algorithms themselves were written by human beings, (8)

says the Court, endorsing prof. Volokh’s (and others’) view of the matter.

The Court makes a couple of other points that are worth highlighting. One is that

search engine operators (at least in the United States and given today’s technology) lack the physical power to silence anyone’s voices, no matter what their alleged market shares may be, (12)

and that an internet user who fails to find relevant information with one search engine can easily to turn to another one. (The matter, really, seems to be not so much “physical power” as monopoly.) Another is that the ads displayed by a search engine might be entitled to less protection than the actual search results, at least insofar as “commercial speech” is less protected than others sorts. Last but not least, the Court finds

no irony in holding that Baidu’s alleged decision to disfavor speech concerning democracy is itself protected by the democratic ideal of free speech. … [T]he 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.

I find this largely persuasive. Still, we might want to ask some questions. For instance, the point about search engines not being monopolists, and users having alternative means of finding information is only true so long as the users know what it is they are looking for. If one doesn’t know that, say, there are other views about democracy in China than whatever the Communist Party line happens to be, one will not think that something is missing from Baidu’s search results, and one will not try using its competitors to find it. But, of course, the same could be said about partisan media, or other biased sources of information. For all the problems that these create, we still think that the problems that regulating them would cause would be even worse. Perhaps there is something special about the internet that makes this calculation inapplicable ― but, if so, the onus is on those who think so to prove it.

Quite apart from the constitutional issues, there is also the question ― which the Court does not address ― of whether the plaintiffs’ claims could have succeeded anyway. At first sight ― and admittedly I know little about American civil rights legislation ― they do not seem especially plausible. As I pointed out in a previous post on this topic, it is by no means clear that there is, whether under anti-discrimination law or otherwise, “some kind of baseline right to have Google [or another search engine] take notice of you”.

This brings me to the point I wanted to make about the differences between American and Canadian law in this context. As the Supreme Court of Canada held in RWDSU v. Dolphin Delivery, [1986] 2 S.C.R. 573, the Charter does not apply to purely private disputes resolved under common law rules (although its “values” are to be taken into account in the development of the common law). This is in contrast to the situation in the United States, where courts consider themselves bound by the First Amendment even when resolving disputes between private parties. If a case such as Zhang arose in Canada, and the plaintiffs formulated their claims in tort (rather than as violations of, say, the Canadian Human Rights Act), the defendant search engine would not have been able to invoke the Charter‘s guarantee of freedom of expression. This doesn’t mean that the outcome would, or should, be different ― but the route by which it could be reached would have to be.

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