By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - Eight New York residents who accused the Chinese government and Baidu.com Inc of censoring their pro-democracy writings on Wednesday asked a U.S. judge for a $17.44 million default judgment.
The plaintiffs had contended in a lawsuit filed last May that China and Baidu, that country's biggest Internet search company, conspired to suppress their speech in violation of the U.S. Constitution and various civil and human rights laws.
Legal experts at the time called the case a stretch, noting China's defense that a U.S. court cannot tell a sovereign country what to do, and that Baidu was unlikely to be held responsible for censorship.
According to papers filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, where the lawsuit had been brought, the writers believe the defendants should be held in default for having failed to accept legal papers when they were served.
"Execution of the request would infringe the sovereignty or security of the People's Republic of China," and not comply with the Hague Convention on serving court documents abroad, the country's ministry of justice said in letters dated January 29.
A clerk in the Manhattan court on Wednesday entered a certificate that "noted" a default by the defendants.
Stephen Preziosi, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said he plans to ask a federal judge to enter a formal order of default.
"We have taken step one," he said in an interview. "The clerk recognized that Baidu and China have defaulted. Only a judge can declare them in default, and we have a very long road before that."
A U.S. spokeswoman for Baidu did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The lawsuit had been brought by writers and video producers who said their works promote democracy movements in China.
They claimed that their content could be found via search engines such as Google and its video-sharing service YouTube, as well as on Yahoo and Microsoft's. Estimated damages total $2 million per plaintiff, plus interest.
Google in 2010 pulled its search engine out of China after hitting censorship issues. China has banned other non-Chinese websites, including Facebook and Twitter, fearing the uncensored sharing of images and information could cause social instability and harm national security.
The case is Zhang et al v. Baidu.com Inc et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 11-03388.
(Reporting By Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Gary Hill)