Chinese tech giant Baidu has been held legally accountable for disparaging language appearing on a deceased writer’s page on its Wikipedia-like reference site Baike, according to a Beijing court’s ruling Wednesday.
The lawsuit — filed by the son of the late playwright, screenwriter, and composer Zhao Zhong — claimed that Baidu had been negligent in supervising the content on its platform, resulting in the infringement of Zhao’s right to reputation. The Beijing Internet Court found Baidu guilty of defamation, ordering the company to apologize and pay the plaintiff symbolic compensation of 6 yuan ($0.85) for emotional distress.
The dispute began when a Baike user with the handle Qiaonü Jiaren — literally “charming and beautiful woman” — edited Zhao’s entry in January 2013, deleting the opera “Red Coral” from a list of his representative works. Then in June the same year, the user added the word dawenzei — a highly pejorative term from the Cultural Revolution that translates to “big traitor to one’s culture” — to Zhao’s personal biography.
The insulting characterization remained on Zhao’s Baike page until his family noticed it in July 2018 and reported the case to Baidu, demanding that the company correct the entry, issue an apology, and disclose Qiaonü Jiaren’s real identity. Zhao’s son sued Baidu after it promptly made the correction but refused his other demands.
Baidu argued in court that, in making the correction, it had fulfilled its legal obligation to the plaintiff. The company further said that it was neither the creator nor the publisher of the entry in question, nor did it know or have the ability to know about the problematic content prior to being notified.
However, Beijing Internet Court ruled that, because the disparaging language was publicly displayed for five years, it had seriously damaged the writer’s reputation — and as the administrator of Baike, Baidu should have taken “necessary and reasonable measures” to prevent such a thing from happening in the first place. The court ordered Baidu to apologize to the plaintiff, add an apology note to Zhao’s Baike page, and pay 6 yuan in damages.
According to Article 36 of China’s tort law, an internet user who infringes another person’s right to reputation can be held liable for defamation. Upon being notified of the tort, or wrongful act, the network service provider is required to delete the defamatory content, block the account of the user who posted it, or take other “necessary measures” in a timely fashion — which it appears Baidu did.
However, Qu Zhenhong, an attorney specializing in tort law at Beijing Huayi Law Firm, told Sixth Tone that the court had likely applied Article 6 rather than Article 36 in determining its verdict. Article 6 states that, if a party accused of infringing an individual’s rights and interests cannot prove its innocence, it shall be subject to liability.
“Baidu did not violate Article 36, since it fulfilled its legal obligation as a network service provider,” Qu said. “However, it is still responsible for infringing Zhao’s reputation for five years. In such cases, Article 6 can apply.”
Baidu has previously come under fire over its online platforms and alleged failure to police them. In July 2016, the company’s forum site Tieba was found to be selling moderation rights to an online community for people with hemophilia — a practice that proved to be vulnerable to exploitation by third parties hoping to promote their dubious medical services. And in March 2019, Baidu was widely criticized after several links on an elementary school’s Baike page were found to be redirecting to an illegal porn website.
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: Gan Jun/IC)