Baidu, referred to as China’s Google, is under probe following the death of a university student who underwent an experimental treatment for cancer after finding it advertised prominently on the search engine.
A team from the Cyber Administration of China (CAC) was dispatched to sprawling Baidu office in Beijing after China’s social media exploded with the news and thousands raised questions about the ethics of advertising on the internet without proper verification.
The internet giant, the most popular search engine in China, saw its shares in the NASDAQ fall by 7.92% soon after the news broke.
Wei Zexi, a computer science major at Xidian University in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, died in April.
Wei was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, in 2014 and had been undergoing a “controversial cancer treatment, which was advertised on Baidu, at the Second Hospital of the Beijing Armed Police Corps, which the Wei family also found through a Baidu search,” official news agency Xinhua reported.
The hospital came up at the top of the list of institutions treating the specific type of cancer.
“The treatment, which uses cells generated by the patient’s own immune system to counter the illness, cost the Wei family around 200,000 yuan (about $31,150). It was unsuccessful,” the report added.
Wei himself left a telling note before his death.
“Baidu, we did not know how much evil it could do,” Wei was quoted as having written in February on question-and-answer website Zhihu, the Chinese equivalent of Quora.
Following the outcry, many Chinese citizens are now questioning the credentials of advertisements on internet.
China has more than 700 million internet users and hundreds of millions use social media platforms like Weibo, which is like a mix of Facebook and Twitter.
Baidu issued statements, saying that it had “…filed a request for the hospital to be investigated, and that it 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,” Xinhua quoted another Baidu statement as saying.
Citizens have continued to react angrily.
“It [Baidu] makes money by taking lives,” one netizen commented.
Another Weibo user wrote, “May there be no more cheating in heaven.”
According to the Xinhua report, this was not the first time that Baidu has been accused of being unethical.
“Earlier this year, the search engine faced widespread criticism for selling the management rights for an online forum related to hemophilia to an unlicensed private hospital, which used the platform for self-promotion and deleted comments that challenged its credentials,” it said.