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China Opens Investigation Into Search Engine Baidu After Student's Death


When someone wants to find something on the Internet in China, they most often use Baidu. It's the country's largest search engine. But Baidu is in trouble. A college student has died after seeking medical treatment based on a promoted search result.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports that Chinese health and Internet authorities are investigating the company after a public outcry.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Two years ago, college student Wei Zexi found out he had a rare form of cancer. After other treatments failed, he turned to Baidu, which has more than 600 million users. His search on Baidu turned up a Beijing hospital run by paramilitary police. It claimed to have a highly effective experimental treatment. But the treatment failed. Wei accused Baidu of cheating him, and he uploaded a videotaped plea for help.


WEI ZEXI: (Through interpreter) I don't want to die. My 21 years of effort have not yet born fruit. I still have dreams. I still want to see this wide world.

KUHN: Wei died on April 12. The search result Wei turned up was a paid promotion, but it's not clear if Wei knew that or not. What is clear is that many Chinese are furious at Baidu and what they consider lax government regulation.

Beijing-based tech blogger Hom Ba (ph) notes that China's advertising law does not cover search engine results, and he says consumers tend to forget that search engines put certain results at the top of the page not because they're the best but because they're paid for.

HOM BA: (Foreign language spoken).

KUHN: "Baidu's promoted links have deceived users," he says, "and triggered one crisis after another. This is not the first time, and this issue has got to be resolved sooner or later."

In January, Baidu hosted an online forum on hemophilia, but it sold the right to moderate that forum to an unlicensed private hospital. Baidu's stock dropped by nearly 8 percent on the NASDAQ yesterday. Baidu has apologized to Wei Zexi's family. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.