Baidu battered after cancer search scandal

Source:Global Times Published: 2016-5-4 21:33:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Editor's Note:

China Internet monitor announced Monday to investigate Baidu over the death of a 21-year-old university student Wei Zexi who used the search engine to look for the best place to treat his cancer. The Chinese Internet giant is accused of failing to highlight paid-for results  and promoting false medical information. Wei's death has triggered a public uproar online. The Global Times has collected three pieces over this matter.

Hard crackdown needed on bad ads

The Second Hospital of Beijing Armed Police Corps, which "cured" Wei to death, is under suspicion of being outsourced to other medical agencies and paying Baidu for higher ranked advertisement positions. A desperate Wei paid hundreds of thousands of yuan to the hospital for treatment that was advertised by Baidu as having introduced advanced therapy from the US. But Wei's cancer cells soon metastasized after treatment and the young man died before long.

The death is regretful, and it is infuriating that Wei's families were misled when they were desperate for help. The criticism and investigation against Baidu and other relevant agencies are natural and reasonable. Baidu is a link in the chain where exaggerated and false medical information is promoted for benefits.

In fact, this phenomenon is widespread in Chinese media, and has not been eradicated despite years of efforts by the authorities. The problem is more acute and serious in Baidu given its broad platform and large number of medical advertisements.

To address the issue, a crackdown on hospitals that provide misleading information is urgently needed, as the media is often unable to verify all the advertisements, and sometimes misled and even pressured by advertisers.

The media be clear-headed and unaffected by money, but in reality many commercial media outlets are struggling to survive and thus are reduced to inferiority in the game with advertisers. Once certain media companies loosen their standards, it will shake the will of other media outlets in publishing medical advertisements.

It is regretful that Baidu has lowered its standards, as this Internet giant should have had the ability to confront the substandard medical advertisements.

Some criticize Baidu of monopolizing China's search engine market, and believe that it can only be curtailed with the return of Google to China. But this is inappropriate thinking.

In fact, competition has done little in eliminating false advertisements. Every institution and person in our society need to raise their moral standards and sense of responsibility. Baidu has to be more self-disciplined to take the initiative in its field. Anyhow, eradicating false medical advertisements is of the upmost importance.

The Global Times

Deceitful hospitals deserve fair blame

Wei's death has provoked public suspicion about Baidu's commercial ethics. Although Baidu said it would cooperate with the investigation, the public are still worried about the future path of this search giant after previous scandals. As a public platform gaining huge interests from selling highlights and higher-ranked advertisements, Baidu cannot easily get away with misleading patients. While the search engine itself causes no direct harm, its "pay to play" commercial model has provided conscienceless advertisers a convenient tool to gain profits.

Baidu's previous scandals have died down in the end. Besides the company's strong PR skills, ineffective medical supervision is the main reason. In most cases, the public are unsatisfied with the authorities' swashbuckling and unimplemented policies. Given this, apart from investigating Baidu, the authorities need to reflect on why unqualified medical agencies, such as the Putian hospital chain involved in Wei's case, have managed to advertise false information and sprung up under supervision.

The emphasis on regulation is not to rid Baidu of responsibilities. In fact, in China's medical market, a complicated and solid network of interests has been formed by search engine, promoters and endorsement of the authorities. Medical advertisers contributed 15-25 percent of Baidu's revenues in 2014, with Putian hospitals accounting for 5-12 percent. The figures show that the interdependent relationship between Putian and Baidu is immutable. Putian medical agencies have to be examined in the investigation against Baidu, and vice versa.

As the authorities have gradually encouraged private medical agencies to operate in recent years, Putian hospitals seized the opportunities to transform and upgrade. However, medical industry concerns people's lives, and thus has to be subject to strict supervision, which includes not only aftereffect management, but also strong intervention during the process. Otherwise, profit chasing may harm public interests.

As the Putian hospitals expand, their deceitful advertising, undue treatments and overcharging are widely criticized but not effectively monitored. If the authorities continue to turn a blind eye to these problems, it will not only harm citizens' rights, but also overdraw the government's authority and credibility. A lack of supervision over private hospitals will result in a chaotic situation. In this sense, Wei's death sends a warning to society.

The Beijing News

Tragedy exposes firm's empty ethics

Just days after Baidu chief executive Robin Li said the company had "an excellent start to 2016," its public image has taken a huge battering.

The online community is questioning Baidu's ethics after certain aspects of its business model seem to value monetary gain over the welfare of its users.

Back in January, the Chinese-language online community was outraged when it was revealed that the multi-billion dollar company had sold the management rights to a hemophilia forum to dubious for-profit "medics." These "health practitioners" flooded the forum with fake adverts, and deleted any comments that called them out on their behavior.

Baidu sells highlighted or higher ranked ad positions for keyword searches. This is a common model used by many search engines, however, and herein is the problem, there seems to be little consideration of the credentials of the paying advertisers.

Thus, the search engine routinely returns results that boast cures and treatments to almost all kinds of illnesses. This "pay to play" model reared its ugly head again just days after Li's comments.

Wei Zexi, a former computer science major at Xidian University in northwest China's Shaanxi Province, used Baidu to find a treatment for a rare form of cancer that he had been diagnosed with in 2014. The treatment cost the Wei family hundreds of thousands of yuan. It was unsuccessful. Wei died on April 12.

There has yet to be an administrative or legal case filed against Baidu, but netizens are, once again, infuriated with its continued complicity in misinforming users on medical matters.

As Chinese netizens,the ultimate source of Baidu's revenue, roar with anger, the response from the Internet giant, as in January' s hemophilia scandal, has been, forgive our bluntness, dumb.

It is widely believed that those involved in the search business should not rank its returned results just upon who pays the most, or the least, money in ad fees.

Li can talk all he wants about how his company connects users with information, but from where we are standing, there seems to be a massive and growing disconnect between Baidu and its corporate social responsibility.

Xinhua News Agency

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