Baidu slammed for monetizing health forums

The web services company is now under fierce criticism in China as its money-making plans enabled scammers to advertise on its online health forums.

Chinese search engine giant Baidu said it will halt monetizing health-related forums on its Tieba subdivision, after some groups had been monopolised by unqualified private hospitals and individuals.

Baidu Tieba, a subdivision with registered users exceeding 1 billion, is a popular online group-discussion service offered by the Chinese technology giant since 2003.

Illness topics are popular on Tieba as sufferers of certain diseases visit forums on Tieba for suggestions and treatments from other users. These forums are normally managed by users who are experienced in the subject and filter fake information and advertisements.

However, a user named "Mayicai" said recently that he was replaced in his role as administrator of the haemophilia forum by Liu Shanxi, a so-called expert on the disorder who had been exposed as a quack doctor by media in 2014, according to a Xinhua news report.

Mayicai said the forum, with some 5,000 members, is one of the most popular groups in China to provide comprehensive knowledge of haemophilia. It was alleged that the number of fake medical advertisements for curing haemophilia surged in the discussion group after Shanxi's appointment.

It was also revealed that over 40 percent of 3,259 forums on various diseases on Baidu Tieba had been sold by Baidu to commercial organisations and personnel including unlicensed hospitals and quack doctors.

Xinhua news also quoted sources saying that Baidu sells one year's operation rights of different forums on Tieba for 30,000 yuan ($4,563) and 60,000 yuan ($9,123). A Beijing Youth Daily report indicated that the administration rights of an illness-related forum could be sold for at least 200,000 yuan ($30,420) annually.

In a statement on Tuesday, Baidu admitted some administrators were seeking personal interests by publicising commercial information, and said it will halt commercialised operation of all illness-related Tieba forums, adding that it will invite non-profit organisations to run these groups to help patients recover.

The US-listed Baidu runs about 19 million discussion groups under various subjects on Tieba with more than 1 billion registered users. Active users have also exceeded 300 million, Chinese reports showed.