Chinese authorities are investigating internet search giant Baidu after the death of a college student who accused the search engine of ranking search results by the amount advertisers paid, resulting in the receipt of misleading medical information.
While searching for treatments for a rare form of cancer known as synovial sarcoma, 21-year-old Wei Zexi found an experimental immunotherapy treatment at a Beijing hospital, rather than a traditional surgical treatment for his type of cancer.
Wei, who died last month, paid $30,000 in borrowed money for the treatment but it failed, he said in a posting in February on a Chinese question-and-answer website. He accused the hospital of overstating the therapy's effectiveness and denounced Baidu as "evil" for allegedly ranking medical information search results by the amount advertisers paid.
His posting prompted a barrage of criticism over the prioritization of paid internet search results.
Amid mounting public anger, The Cyberspace Administration of China, the country's online regulator, said it has launched a joint investigation with health and commerce authorities.
'Killed for money'
Chen Jieren, a well-known Beijing-based political commentator, told VOA Mandarin Service it's "no exaggeration to say Baidu has 'killed for money.'"
"The death of this student is only a microcosm of Baidu's evil practices," he said during a televised VOA broadcast. "Three months ago, another cancer patient also complained about Baidu. Baidu has used its power of information monopoly in China, taken payment from fake hospitals and badly rated hospitals, and heartlessly promoted them as high-ranking hospitals. Baidu is the most important part of an evil link which has hurt lots of people and caused the death of many."
Often viewed as China's version of the U.S. internet mammoth Google, Baidu's search services accounted for 83 percent of its total revenue last year. Much of the search business came from customers "who pay us a fee based on click-throughs for priority placement of their links in the search results," the company said in its annual report.
Call for supervision
Some Chinese netizens have called on Google to return to mainland China, arguing that if the Silicon Valley tech giant hadn't been banned by Beijing, Baidu wouldn't have a regional information monopoly.
Chen said a diversified search market wouldn't necessarily provide a safeguard.
"It makes sense, but we should avoid thinking in terms of absolutes," he said. "Even with Google in China, we [would] still have to have effective supervision. Both Google and Baidu are business for profits. Without supervision, there would be dangerous information providers."
Baidu said in a statement that it deeply regretted Wei's death and would "fully cooperate" with the investigation. "Baidu is a trusted company and we uphold extremely high standards to make our platform safe and trustworthy," a company spokesperson said.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Mandarin Service. Some material for this report came from AFP and Reuters.