-Analysis-

BEIJING — Over the last week, Tieba, an online forum of Baidu, China's largest search engine, has sparked a new kind of online controversy that should be a warning around the world. One of the Tieba bulletin board forums, which had originally been created by patients with hemophilia – a genetic blood disorder — was sold to a shady private company. Almost immediately, the new owners littered the site with massive amounts of advertisements for false and dangerous drugs and medical care.

In the face of an overwhelming uproar from the public, Baidu backtracked within two days by saying that it “will not allow any individual to use the forum to swindle the public,” and vowed to stop selling such online forums. Baidu is thus painting itself as a victim.

But this has become a familiar song coming from all of China's major internet portals. When an e-commerce service provider receives customer complaints that they are being cheated with counterfeit goods, the provider always says that they too are victims, and receives no compensation from those exploiting their platform. When a social media site is littered with pornographic pictures, it cries out that they didn't take the photos, nor upload them. Everybody in the online business world is quite skilled at passing the buck.

In Baidu's logic, as long as it shakes up these health forums it runs — which cover such ailments as hyperthyroidism, infertility, osteonecrosis, diabetes, and eczema — swindling will disappear from its ecosystem.

Like other similar players in the global industry, Baidu claims it is merely an innocent “platform” that is just part of the Internet's so-called “ecology.” But what is worth asking is whether “the platform is innocent” is still a valid defense?

Not only is Baidu a technical provider of forums, but it's also a content manager. Along with Alibaba, the Chinese equivalent of e-Bay, as well as portal giant Tencent, all call themselves platform-based companies.

The Baidu Baike, a Chinese-language encyclopedia rivaling the Chinese version of Wikipedia, is not written by Baidu itself. Alibaba's online shopping mall, Taobao and business-to-consumer online retail Tmall do not operate sales. And Tencent does not generate the messages of its social mobile WeChat or microblogging applications.

Infrastructure and Responsibility

However, Alibaba is the world's largest online shopping firm. Tencent's WeChat and QQ are Asia's biggest communication software firms, and Baidu is China's biggest search engine. These companies like to boast that they own the “largest platforms,” even while shirking their responsibilities. Therein lies the rub.

Tencent HQ in in Shenzhen, southern China — Photo: Liang Xu/Xinhua/ZUMA

As Dr. Fang Xingdong, founder of ChinaLabs, as well as a member of the Internet Society of China, stated that as a search engine, Baidu is the first port of call for obtaining online information in Chinese. It also has free access to most Internet content and thus is a monopolistic information channel.

In other words, a platform like Baidu is essentially a public infrastructure. While roads, water, electricity and coal are provided by the government, the massive amount of information Chinese Internet users read, the friends they contact, and the things they buy pass mostly through Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. When these platforms fail to regulate themselves or, worse, take the initiative to violate rules, it is bound to trigger “Gresham's Law” according to which the bad drives out the good, on the flow of information, goods and capital. But it will also have an unpredictably major impact on China's communication, trade and financial systems.

Using commercial confidentiality as an excuse, these leading web companies refuse to make public their products, users and operations data. For instance, Baidu never releases data on how many of its forums have been illegally sold — including some sold to local governments to run for propaganda purposes. Meanwhile they present themselves as the country's infrastructure to gain institutional, strategic and financial support from the authorities, while failing to take up, or fully assume, a public services platform's basic responsibilities.

To put it plainly, this is using a commercial operation to form a market monopoly, and then using the monopoly to hold the regulators hostage.

As one industry insider told this newspaper, paid listings are responsible for most of Baidu's profits: The search engine displays its search results pages in accordance with what advertisers are ready to pay, whether or not they are selling counterfeit goods or services. As a result the “golden locations” on the first pages of the search results are regularly sold to illegal hospitals, who are usually the highest bidders, while regular hospitals, health care institutes and services wind up denied reasonable exposure.

In mid-January, the Chinese authorities finally came up with a draft law entitled "Internet News and Information Services Provisions." The legislation specifies that, in the future, internet information service providers are not allowed to use illegal methods, such as interfering with search results, or interfering with information dissemination platforms to make undue profits. Time will tell if such a statute can instill some sense of social responsibility into China's biggest digital platforms.