Chinese Internet giant Baidu is being sued for censoring its content by a group of activists in New York, as American computer networking equipment making giant Cisco Systems denied customizing its routers to enable Beijing to track members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Eight pro-democracy activists, who are New York residents, filed the censorship lawsuit against Baidu in a Manhattan federal court, seeking U.S. $16 million in damages from the company.
They say their "writings, publications and coverage of pro-democracy events” were censored and filtered out of searches on Baidu, which leads the search engine market in China.
The plaintiffs were described as "promoters of democracy in China" through their writings, publications, reporting.
Baidu, the lawsuit alleges, conspired with the ruling Chinese Communist Party to make the plaintiffs' content unavailable in China, adding that both company and government violated civil rights laws in New York State.
If Baidu and China don't answer the complaint, there will be a default judgment against them, lawyers for the plaintiffs have said.
China's government reacts
Baidu has so far declined to comment on the case, but foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu last week dismissed the move.
"The Chinese government's administration of the Internet is in line with common international practice as well as a sovereign act over which courts outside China have no jurisdiction according to international law," Jiang told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Thursday.
"The Chinese government encourages and supports the development of the Internet and protects Chinese citizens' freedom of speech in accordance with law," she said.
On the same day, however, Chinese netizens applauded a shoe-throwing protest by a university student and Twitter user aimed at the man credited as the father of Chinese Internet controls.
China imposes a complex system of blocks, keyword filters, and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall, or GFW.
The student, who studies architecture at a college in Wuhan, was the object of a city-wide manhunt following the shoe and egg attack on Fang Binxing, which he reported on Twitter before and after the event.
Fang, president of the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, is widely regarded as the "father of the Great Firewall" and is hugely unpopular among Chinese netizens.
Searches for Fang Binxing's name on the popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo were blocked following the incident.
Instead, searches resulted in the following message: "We were unable to display the search results according to relevant laws and regulations."
U.S. firm sued
Also last week, members of the Falun Gong filed a lawsuit against Cisco, saying the company aided torture and repression in China through its sales of surveillance software to the Chinese government.
According to the complaint, filed in a San Jose federal court, the Chinese authorities used Cisco’s “Golden Shield” firewall to track Falun Gong members, who were then arrested and tortured.
The lawsuit, which was filed with the help of the Human Rights Law Foundation based on U.S. laws allowing foreign nationals to complain about violations of international law, alleges that Cisco sales materials promoted the technology for its dissident-tracking capabilities.
Cisco has said there is no basis for the allegations, which the company plans to defend "vigorously."
Internet controls tightened
Earlier this month, China set up a nationwide command center to oversee the country's 477 million netizens and to "manage information" on the Internet, prompting fears that online controls will get tighter still.
The State Internet Information Office, directly under the control of China's cabinet, or State Council, will "direct, coordinate, and supervise online content management," official media reported.
The most recent crackdown on dissent in China began following anonymous online calls for a "Jasmine" revolution, inspired by recent uprisings in the Middle East.
Rights groups say dozens of activists, lawyers, and cyber-dissidents have been detained, sent to labor camp, or sentenced to jail terms for subversion.
Reported by Luisetta Mudie.