Baidu CEO tells staff to put 'values before profits' after outrage over student death

Robin LiGetty ImagesBaidu CEO Robin Li.

The boss of China’s biggest search ad business Robin Li has urged his company to put “values before profit,” in an effort to regain public trust.

The Baidu CEO made the comments in a letter sent to employees, after the search engine was ordered to reduce the number of ads it includes in search results by the government regulator.

The Cyberspace Administration of China said on Monday that Baidu gave “too much weight” to advertisements and its “commercial promotions were not clearly marked,” according to the BBC. The regulator said that this “affected the impartiality and objectivity” of the search engine.

Much of the public outrage stemmed from the death of Wei Zexi — a 21-year-old student who died after taking part in an unsuccessful “experimental cancer treatment” he said he found on Baidu. Before his death, Zexi had criticised Baidu for its ranking algorithm which is heavily weighted towards promoted posts.

The regulator said that Baidu’s search results “had an impact” on Zexi’s choice of treatment.

“If we lose the support of users, we lose hold of our values, and Baidu will truly go bankrupt in just 30 days!” Robin Li said in the letter, according to CNBC.

Li added: “The outrage is greater than in any crisis Baidu has experienced before.”

The Cyberspace Administration of China demanded that Baidu only allows government-approved medical companies to advertise on the search engine. It also said that promoted results can only make up 30% of Baidu’s search results.

Before CEO Li’s letter, Baidu said it would “implement all the changes demanded by investigators, and deeply reflect on its shortcomings,” The BBC reported.

Baidu was not immediately available for comment.

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