The head of Chinese search giant Baidu has been summoned by the country’s authorities, reports said Tuesday, as the firm faced a barrage of criticism over the death of a student who used it to search for a cancer treatment.
Wei Zexi, a 21-year-old college student, had already been diagnosed as having a terminal soft tissue disease when his family found an experimental immunotherapy treatment via a Baidu search.
He spent more than 200,000 yuan (US$30,000) on the therapy, which failed, he said in a posting on zhihu.com, a Chinese question-and-answer forum, in February before he died. He had borrowed money to cover his costs.
Wei accused the hospital of exaggerating the treatment’s efficacy and accused Baidu of ranking medical information search results by the amount paid by advertisers, denouncing it as “evil” and warning other cancer patients “not to be cheated”.
Baidu says it differentiates paid entries in its search results.
But amid mounting public anger, the Cyberspace Administration of China said in a statement that it has launched a joint investigation with the country’s health authorities and business regulator into Baidu.
The company’s chief executive Robin Li has also been asked by the Internet regulator to answer queries, the Economic Information Daily, which is owned by the official Xinhua news agency, on Tuesday quoted unnamed sources as saying.
“Baidu has been operating in a grey area where the rule of law, business profits and public interests are intertwined,” a columnist wrote on Tuesday in the Global Times newspaper, which is close to the ruling Communist Party.
“Baidu must face discipline by authorities for its unscrupulous activities driven by desire for profits,” it added.
Baidu “welcomed” the probe and said it will “fully cooperate” with the investigators to “leave no chance for false Internet information or violation of the law”, the state-run China News Service said in a report on Monday.