Internet & Tech

Televised attack

State broadcaster opens fire on search engine rival

Televised attack

Under attack: Baidu boss, Robin Li

People like their days off. Not a startling revelation, for sure, but one that Cai Jiming found out the hard way, when he began reading comments made about him on Tieba, a forum run by Baidu, China’s dominant search engine.

Cai, a professor at Tsinghua University, had backed plans to shorten the national holiday schedule. Netizens begged to differ, some of them rather abusively.

So Cai asked Baidu to delete the comments. It refused, leaving him with the impression that it was happy to make money from sites that poke fun at those in the public eye.

This is the story Cai told CCTV in a news report last week. The broadcaster concurred, describing the comments as “slanderous”.

On its own, a negative report on state TV about a private company isn’t strange. But the rumour is that this could be part of something larger – a more comprehensive campaign against Baidu is now being waged under CCTV leaderership.

A few days earlier the channel had accused Baidu of failing to make adequate checks on companies advertising drugs on its site. And then last week CCTV launched a website of its own, ostensibly aimed at rooting out bad practices on the internet. Much of the content focuses on Baidu.

In response, Baidu has been making apologetic noises. Wang Zhan, the company’s vice-president of sales, even turned up on CCTV to say sorry to individuals affected by fraudulent information, reports the Financial Times. Wang promised that Baidu was taking measures to strengthen oversight of its online material, as well as tightening up on its sales operations (a parallel: Google was fined $500 million last week for allowing advertising of unlicensed pharma products).

Behind closed doors, the firm’s bosses may not be quite so contrite. Baidu spokesman Li Guoxun was the most rumbustious, posting on his microblog that “any private enterprise…has more integrity than CCTV,” reports China Information World.

Li subsequently deleted the message.

What lies behind the spat? During Beijing’s disagreement with Google last year, Baidu came across as a model of compliance. A few months on and elements of the traditional media look more intent on casting it as an enemy of the state.

In part, that could be old media versus the brave new world, with a declining medium lashing out at its new rival. “The impact of new media is increasing rapidly and the ad spend on online portals and especially on search engines is rising almost 100% every year,” a technology analyst told Reuters. “But for old media like TV and print, growth is flat.”

CCTV is also trying to get in on the action, having established its own search engine. Could the reports be a way of knocking a market leader off its pedestal, to make space for a new entrant?

Others see the dispute as representing something more fundamental. The internet in China is a rare patch of the economy where private entrepreneurship reigns supreme. Generally, Beijing has been accepting of that, providing that the leading firms follow its rules on online content. But is it now changing its mind and mounting a a new effort to push state-owned companies further into the spotlight?

It’s too early to reach any definitive conclusions. Nor do wider relations look especially strained and web CEO are still at pains to foster cooperative relations with regulators. The alliance is a key reason why foreign internet firms have found it so difficult to break into the sector.

But as the internet giants start to bite into offline areas, they are sometimes chewing at the edge of state monopolies.

The weibo phenomenon could also be a factor. Catching on fast among millions of Chinese, weibo messaging is proving harder to corral than earlier forms of online content.

In particular, the aftermath to the Wenzhou rail crash may be forcing web censors into a rethink.

Re-establishing a little state authority in a potentially fractious area may be on the agenda.

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