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May 3, 2016

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Baidu faces probe following student’s death

CHINA’S Internet regulator said yesterday it had sent a team to investigate Baidu Inc in connection with the death of a 21-year-old university student who used the country’s biggest search engine to look for treatment for his cancer.

Officials from the Cyberspace Administration of China, State Administration of Industry and Commerce and the National Health and Family Planning Commission, are involved in the probe, said CAC spokesperson Jiang Jun.

The CAC said in a statement that the case had attracted widespread attention and that the investigation would be handled “in accordance with the law.”

Wei Zexi, a computer science major at Xidian University in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, died last month from synovial sarcoma.

He had earlier turned to Baidu to find the best place for treatment and found a department under the Second Hospital of Beijing Armed Police Corps that offered an experimental form of treatment. The procedure, which uses cells generated by the patient’s own immune system to counter the illness, cost the Wei family about 200,000 yuan (US$31,000).

It was unsuccessful, and Wei died on April 12.

Before his death, Wei made several online posts in which he accused Baidu of promoting false medical information. He also criticized the hospital for using misleading advertising that claimed a high success rate for the experimental treatment.

“Baidu, we did not know how much evil it could do,” Wei wrote in February on question-and-answer website Zhihu.

The company came under heavy fire from people who blamed it for not checking the credentials of its advertisers.

“It [Baidu] makes money by taking lives,” a person wrote under Wei’s final Weibo post.

Another wrote: “May there be no more cheating in heaven.”

Baidu said it welcomed the investigation and would “fully support Zexi’s family should the investigation confirm malpractice at the hospital.”

“We deeply regret the death of Zexi. May Zexi rest in peace,” it said in an earlier statement.

Shares in NASDAQ-listed Baidu fell 6 percent in early trading in New York yesterday.

Chinese Internet portal Sina, citing unidentified sources within Baidu, said the regulator had also asked to speak to Baidu’s Chief Executive Robin Li, although it was not clear what the subject might be, according to Reuters.

Like other search engines, Baidu earns money from selling links that appear in search results. The more an advertiser pays, the higher its ads will be ranked in the search results.

A search for synovial sarcoma on Baidu does not appear to return links related to the hospital in question any more.

This is not the first time that Baidu has been accused of being unethical. Earlier in the year, the company faced criticism for selling the management rights to an online forum related to hemophilia to a private hospital, which used the platform for self-promotion and deleted comments that challenged its credentials.

A Zhihu user who researched forum ownership said in January that as many as 40 percent of Baidu’s disease-related forums had been sold to “unscrupulous private medical groups, drug manufacturers and charlatans.”

Private hospitals were estimated to have contributed at least 10 billion yuan to Baidu’s ad revenue in 2014, according to a report carried by Tencent Technology last year.


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