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China Is Investigating Search Engine Giant Baidu Following Student's Death

Wei Zexi sought treatment for a rare cancer at a hospital which came top of his search results in a paid-for listing. The search engine Baidu has now been accused of providing misleading information.

by VICE News and Reuters
May 3 2016, 10:35am

Baidu's logo in front of its Beijing office. Photo by How Hwee Young/EPA

China has launched an investigation into its leading search engine Baidu Inc. following the death of a university student who used it to look for treatment for his cancer.

Wei Zexi, 21, had turned to Baidu to look for the best place to treat his rare form of cancer and discovered a treatment offered by Second Hospital of Beijing Armed Police Corps, which appeared at the top of his search results.

Like other search engines, Baidu gets a large amount of its income from selling advertising, but unlike competitors such as Google, paid-for listings are not clearly marked, reported China Daily.

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Wei's treatment ultimately failed, reported state media, and before he died last month he posted criticism online accusing Baidu of promoting false medical information. He also denounced the hospital for misleading advertising in claiming a high success rate for the experimental treatment, state radio said.

"Wei's family says they trusted the treatment because it was promoted by one of the military hospitals which are considered credible, and the attending doctor had appeared on many mainstream media platforms," state radio reported.

Baidu has previously been criticized for allowing an unlicensed private hospital to manage an online forum for hemophilia sufferers. The company used the forum for self-promotion and deleted comments that challenged its credentials, the official Xinhua news agency said.

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The Chinese internet regulator said in a short statement that Wei's case had attracted widespread attention online.

It would investigate Baidu over the case and "handle it in accordance with the law," along with the health ministry and State Administration for Industry and Commerce, it said, and publicize the findings.

Shares in Baidu, which has a Chinese market share of about 80 percent, dropped almost 8 percent on Monday after news of the investigation broke.

Baidu said in a statement it deeply regretted Wei's death and sent its condolences to his family. "Baidu strives to provide a safe and trustworthy search experience for our users, and have launched an immediate investigation of the matter," it said.

The company added it welcomed the investigation and would fully cooperate. The hospital where Wei sought treatment was a qualified medical institution, it said last week on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. Reuters was not able to reach the hospital for comment.

On Monday, Xinhua accused Baidu of abusing search engine technology to make money unethically, reported the Wall Street Journal. "Making money by allowing companies to pay for better search placement is to put a good tool in the hands of interest-seekers with bad intentions," it said.

In 2010, China's state-run television accused Baidu of promoting counterfeit drugs through its search engine.

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