China orders Baidu to restrict paid search results

Chinese authorities have demanded an overhaul of China’s tech giant Baidu to change how it displays search results, following an outcry over the death of a student whose family used it to seek a cancer cure.

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) said Baidu relied excessively on profits from paid listings in search results, and did not clearly label such listings as the result of commercial promotion, compromising the objectivity and impartiality of search results.

Like other search engines, Baidu sells links that appear in search results. The more an advertiser pays, the higher it will appear in the search results. The public are “likely to be misled” by the search results they find on Baidu, the CAC said.

NASDAQ-listed Baidu was already in the eye of a public-relations storm after the death of Wei Zexi, 21, a computer science major at Xidian University in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province.

Wei was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, in 2014 and had been undergoing a controversial cancer treatment advertised on Baidu, at the Second Hospital of Armed Police Beijing Corps, which the Wei family also found through a Baidu search. The treatment was unsuccessful and Wei died on 12 April.

A team of investigators from the CAC, the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, and the National Health and Family Planning Commission was dispatched to Baidu on 2 May.

They found Baidu’s search results did influence Wei’s choices of medical treatment, and specified areas in which Baidu needs to change.

The search-engine must eschew the current model of paid listings and stop ranking search results solely according to price-tags. It needs to propose and implement a new listing mechanism which places the heaviest weight on credit-worthiness of products and organisations, the investigators said.

They asked Baidu to clearly label advertisements, and feature a risk reminder; and to restrict the share of commercials in search results to less than 30% of each screen page.

Baidu was also ordered to streamline its commercial services regarding the medical industry. Such information featured must be pulled off should it break regulations, and medical institutions unaccredited by industry regulators should not be commercially promoted.

The investigators also required Baidu to respond to internet users’ tip-offs regarding imprudent content, and to compensate them for any losses stemming from misleading information.

The CAC said it will tighten regulation of the country’s internet search services and crack down on false medical advertising online.

In response, Baidu said it will “implement all the changes demanded by investigators, and deeply reflect on its shortcomings”.

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