Baidu, China’s top search engine, is currently facing the most serious scandal in company history, accused by state media and web users of placing profits before the health and safety of its users, following the death of a 21-year-old university student.
Wei Zexi underwent a type of experimental cancer treatment at a Beijing hospital after noticing a paid advertisement on the top of his Baidu search. Wei, a computer science student from Shaanxi province, had a rare form of cancer called synovial sarcoma. The treatment cost his family 200,000 yuan and wasn’t successful.
Afterward, Wei went online to vent his anger, not just at the hospital itself, but at the search engine that had recommended the treatment to him. On Zhihu (Chinese Quora), Wei answered the question: “What do you think is the greatest evil of human nature?”
In his response, he wrote that the hospital tried to treat him by using cells generated by his own immune system to fight the cancer. They claimed it was an effective method that had been developed in a research collaboration with the Stanford medical school. Only afterward did Wei learn that this was a lie. The treatment had been found not viable by Stanford and shelved; meanwhile foreign countries contested the effectiveness of the experimental treatment, which had a low record of success.
“I had no idea how evil Baidu was… until now,” Wei wrote.
On April 14th, Wei’s father wrote on Zhihu to say that his son had passed away earlier that day. In interviews with the media, Wei’s parents have placed part of the blame for their son’s death on Baidu.
Watch this video he recorded before his death:
Wei’s posts have since gone viral on the Chinese internet and Baidu now stands accused of risking the well-being of its users in order to make money. Like many search engines, Baidu’s paid medical ads are not listed in order of effectiveness, but by how much money is paid to the company. However, unlike some other search engines, which place paid ads on the right-hand side, Baidu presents paying advertisements right on top of search results, though they are clearly divided. Critics charge that considering the confusion that can result, Baidu has not done enough to check the medical credentials of its own advertisers.
Last Thursday, Baidu responded to the criticism, saying that they had previously checked out the Second Hospital of Beijing Armed Police Corps, where Wei Zexi had been treated, and had found that it was a first-rate public hospital. As outrage grew over the weekend, Baidu announced that it planned on reexamining the hospital more closely. The treatment itself was actually outsourced to a private Fujian based medical group, the Putian Group, which controls most of China’s private hospitals.
While formal allegations against the company have yet to be filed, China announced yesterday that it was assigning a task force — composed of officials from the Cyberspace Administration of China, health authorities and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce — to investigate Baidu over the incident. Sina also reported that even Baidu CEO Robin Li had been summoned for a chat with investigators.
Baidu’s business practices stand in contrast to remarks given by Chinese President Xi Jinping at an internet forum on April 19th, where he stressed that internet searches should not be about who pays the most:
Web entrepreneurs should not regard clicks as their only goal. Online shop owners should not sell counterfeit or substandard products. Social media organizers should not spread rumors. Search engines should not arrange the information sequence only based on how much they pay.
Meanwhile, Party-mouthpiece People’s Daily has authored a strongly-worded editorial, accusing the search giant of not having its priorities straight:
Internet companies shall think about how to reform their corporate values. If they kept the current conducts of passively answering criticisms and avoiding taking responsibilities, they would lose people’s trust and respect. Only by accepting the social responsibility can the Internet corporations be competitive and enjoy better development. An enhanced development of the Internet is needed for China and Internet corporations need to harness it for the benefit of the country and the people.
Certainly, gaining back public trust and respect look to be serious issues for the company. In a survey on Sina (a competitor of Baidu with a lot to gain in its downfall) of nearly 20,000 participants, less than 3% said that Baidu had no responsibility in Wei’s death. Meanwhile, 47.5% believed that the company should not even be engaging in any kind of medical advertisements.
While Baidu has deleted the advertisement that Wei Zexi read, the ad for the same treatment at the same hospital was left up for users searching for other forms of cancer, Sina reports.
This isn’t the first time that Baidu has been criticized for endangering its users’ health. Back in January, the company was slammed for selling the moderation rights of its forums related to blood disease to an unlicensed private hospital, which then used the forum to promote itself and deleted negative comments disparaging the clinic’s credentials. Baidu apologized and said it would “reflect deeply” on such practices.
Additionally, the company was also involved in a landmark court case involving a gay conversion therapy clinic. The patient in the case underwent electroshock therapy to “cure” his homosexuality at a medical clinic that he had found listed on Baidu. A Beijing court ruled that the clinic must pay compensation and Baidu was forced to remove the ad.
Over the first three months of this year, Baidu reported that its revenues were up 31.2% compared to the same period last year, most of that came from a 19.3% growth in online advertising revenue, totaling 14.9 billion yuan, 94% of its total revenue. Medical advertisements make up 30% of Baidu’s ad revenue, according to Quartz.
However, following the scandal and the news that Robin Li has been summoned for questioning by authorities, forecasts are less sunny for Baidu shareholders, with shares falling by almost 8% on Monday, Reuters reports.
[Editor’s note: 8pm] The post has been updated to more clearly describe where Baidu places its paid advertisements and why critics find its methods so insidious.