Baidu probed for paid medical listing in wake of man's death

2016-05-03 08:22Global Times Editor: Li Yan

Public furor after man's death linked to search engine ad

Chinese authorities have dispatched a team of investigators to tech giant Baidu after a 21-year-old student died when he acted upon a top search engine result in his quest to be cured from a rare cancer, only to receive substandard treatment.

An announcement sent to the Global Times from the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) states that a joint investigation into Baidu over paid prominent listings will be carried out by the CAC and other departments, including the National Health and Family Planning Commission.

Baidu founder Li Yanhong was allegedly summoned by the CAC Monday afternoon to discuss the case, news portal reported.

Wei Zexi, from Shaanxi Province died from synovial sarcoma on April 12. His family said they spent 200,000 yuan ($31,000) on immunotherapy at a biomedical department of the Second Hospital of Beijing Armed Police Corps in the city's Xicheng district after finding the hospital's information on Baidu.

The hospital boasted its immunotherapy was the "most advanced technology in cooperation with Stanford University."

But Wei saw no improvement in his condition and the alleged "cooperation with Stanford" was nothing but a fraud.

Zhan Juan, an editor of Bloomberg Businessweek was quoted as saying by news portal on Monday that Stanford has denied it has any form of cooperation with the hospital.

Calls to the hospital went unanswered on Monday and the hospital's website became unavailable after the case went viral online.

The case was vehemently discussed on Chinese cyberspace over the weekend, with many demanding the search engine's top-ranked paid-for listings for medical facilities be banned once and for all.

Other commentators, such as Xiakedao, a WeChat account related to the Party-run newspaper People's Daily, said the case was yet another example of how some companies have crossed the moral lines in search of profits and urged the Chinese authorities to reign in "the beast of capital" to prevent it from corroding the country's morals, basic rights and even the basis of governance.

The scandal also created another public relations disaster for the search engine giant which was only recently attacked for selling a number of its disease-related forums to dubious hospitals.

Baidu said on Monday that it welcomed the investigation and would cooperate with competent authorities' supervision, leaving no space for Internet fraud and crimes.

The company currently holds more than 60 percent of China's search engine market.

Meanwhile, the biomedical department of the Armed Police hospital has been shut down, Beijing Youth Daily reported on Monday.

Promoted listings

According to a poll conducted by on Monday, which attracted more than 17,000 responses as of press time, over 50 percent said "the inaction of medical regulators" was the main reason for Wei's death, while more than 35 percent blamed Baidu's system of search engine optimization, in which paid-for advertising can be promoted at the top of the search listings.

More than 47 percent of the respondents said that Baidu should not "promote medical ads," and more than 38 percent think Baidu should check medical facilities' qualifications.

The biomedical department which provided Wei's immunotherapy is run by entrepreneurs from Putian county in East China's Fujian Province, news portal reported on Monday.

The expansion of Putianese-owned medical facilities has led to booming ad revenue at Baidu.

In 2013, Liang Jianyong, the Communist Party chief in Putian, said that Putianese-owned private hospitals contributed 12 billion yuan of a total of 26 billion yuan of Baidu's online ad revenue in 2013, media reported.

A private hospital in a first-tier city could spend as much as 1 million yuan monthly on Baidu, the general manager of a Putianese-owned private hospital previously told the Global Times.

Baidu gives prominence to the highest bidder for keywords such as "women's hospital" and "infertility" in search results, and private hospitals pay Baidu per click, each of which costs several hundred yuan, he said.

Legal loopholes

This is not the first time that Baidu has incurred public wrath for medical reasons. In January, Baidu sold the management rights of a number of disease-related forums, turning them from message boards for patients and their families to a platform where misleading medical ads are rampant.

"Baidu has repeatedly provided fake or inaccurate medical information, but it hasn't received serious punishment so far, which shows the country's unsound legal system on cyberspace, as well as its relatively weak law enforcement ability," Qin An, a cyber-security expert at the China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy, said, adding that such "Internet fraud" should be punished severely.

Google forfeited $500 million in 2011 for allowing online pharmacies to place ads which led to the unlawful importation of controlled and non-controlled prescription drugs into the US.

"It's necessary to make a law on cyber security in China, as now the country's cyber space faces many new challenges and has a limited legal base to rely on," Qin said.


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