Baidu is often referred to as China's Google, and there are indeed many similarities. Baidu just got permission to join Google in testing its self driving cars in California. Both companies have a diverse set of product offerings, with overlap in categories like knowledge, location-based, music, mobile, search, social, games, and translation services. And both Google and Baidu are leading the way in Artificial Intelligence developments.
Google left China in 2010 in response to government censorship requirements and hacking intrusions. Google's refusal to go along with censorship, and Bauidu's willingness to comply, is one big difference between the two. China's Great Firewall has effectively blocked out the world, and local search engines are complicit with censorship and adherence to state controlled policies.
Baidu has grown into a behemoth in China.
- There are over 700 million internet users in China.
- In 2015 Baidu had over 80% of market share.
- In Q2 2016 alone Baidu's revenues were $2.748 billion.
While Baidu dominates in China, Google is the the global leader with about 90% of worldwide search engine market share. Baidu has less than 1% of search engine market share, despite a vigorous effort to capture more of that, and other varied product categories outside of China.
Lately Baidu has been in the news for some shifty practices that have caused outcry and repercussions for the bottom line.
Baidu is an important resource for Chinese people seeking health related information. There is great distrust of the healthcare system in China and people commonly rely on online forums for reliable information shared among peers. There are over 20 million forums with 1.5 billion registered participants discussing all manners of topics. Among those forums are many about health, often focused on particular maladies, and serving as support groups.
Participants share their experiences with medications and treatments, successes and failures, and this peer provided information is well-trusted, and a valuable resource for people who are ill. Earlier this year practices came to light that led to mass protests and calls to boycott Baidu.
The forums have moderators, much the same as US forums, who check content for relevance and delete offensive or false information. Moderators are impartial volunteers, and well-informed on the forum topic, or so people assumed. The original moderator for one group with 7,000 members, focused on the blood disease hemophilia, was abruptly removed from his role with no explanation.
It was learned that the replacement moderator had paid for the position and was unqualified. Worse yet, he was posting false information about unproven remedies, promoting suspect providers, recommending unqualified facilities and deleting any critical information posted about them.
Selling these roles, as it turns out, was extremely common, and greatly profitable for Baidu which collected fees of $30,000 to $300,000 apiece. The hemophilia group was only one example of many, where forum operators posted false info to promote their own products and services. In another case, a college student died after following advice in a forum about a type of cancer he had. The advice was posted to promote a treatment that the moderator owned and which was ineffective.
After the scandal was fully revealed, and amidst outrage, Baidu said it would discontinue the revenue generating practice, and instead put the well being of its users first. In an interesting twist, the moderators who had paid for their positions held a protest at Baidu headquarters demanding recompense for investments they'd made in their lucrative roles that have now been cut short.
DATA PRIVACY & SECURITY
While the scoundrelish tactics regarding healthcare impacted primarily Chinese users, Baidu's leaky browser and app integrations have global ramifications. Baidu, and other Chinese based browsers were found to be leaking stunning amounts of data in both mobile androids apps and pc windows based apps. All sorts of data is collected and transmitted, sometimes openly, sometimes with easily decryptable encryption.
The type of data collected is excessive and includes the user’s GPS coordinates, search terms, URLs visited, the user’s IMEI, nearby wireless networks, hard drive serial number, network MAC address, and GPU model number. Experts are posing the question of whether it was shoddy design, or designed to enable surveillance. Dissidents, reporters, and others in politically sensitive or high risk situations would be in danger and not even know their information was being transmitted.
This same unsecure code was and is used to develop apps for Android phones and Windows computers, and the apps hav been downloaded hundreds of millions of times. Thousands of the apps are available on Google Play and are sending back the same detailed information to Baidu servers. Users are at risk for hacking, malware and many nefarious activities.
DON'T BE EVIL
Many users in China are hoping Google will return, especially after they learned about Baidu's profiteering on people's health and lives. At least one blogger contrasted Baidu's behavior with Google's original motto "Don't be Evil".
Before Google's IPO in 2004 they wrote:
“Google users trust our systems to help them with important decisions: medical, financial and many others. Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating … We believe it is important for everyone to have access to the best information and research, not only to the information people pay for you to see.”
That right there is a great big difference between the two companies.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
The privacy and security report was done by Citizen Lab, a group that investigates online privacy and security issues. Read more here.