China's powerful internet regulator has moved to rein in the country's search engines following the death of a young cancer patient who had used Baidu to find an untested 'cure' from poorly labeled sponsored results.
Internet search providers must now clearly label all paid-for search results and step up their oversight of advertisers on their sites, the country's Cyberspace Administration said in a new set of regulations.
They are no longer allowed to remove negative content about their advertising clients from search results, it said.
"If paid listings are in-distinguishable from normal search results, they could mislead users," the agency said.
The new rules follow widespread public anger over the April 12 death of Wei Zexi, 21, amid concerns that for-profit sponsored links on the search engine had led Wei to an ineffective treatment.
Wei searched Baidu for treatments for his synovial carcinoma—malignant tumors that grow in soft tissues, usually around joints—and found one offered by an outsourced oncology department in the Beijing No. 2 People's Armed Police Hospital.
He later complained online that he had trusted the hospital because it was at the top of Baidu’s search results and not clearly marked as a paid-for link, sparking complaints that the company's current pay-for-listing policy is ethically dubious.
The new rules come as the agency also moves to "clean up" comments sections on news websites, warning news sites not to lure the reading public with "clickbait" stories.
Ren Xianliang, deputy head of the Cyberspace Administration, said in a video statement that news websites should "proactively foster a healthy, positive internet culture, and let cultured comments, rational posts and well-intentioned responses become the order of the day online."
Websites have a duty to "allow the internet to better benefit the people," he said.
Everything's already censored
Hebei-based veteran journalist Zhu Xinxin said the clampdown might give rise to other problems, however.
"There are a huge number of people in our society, and all sorts of things go on," Zhu said. "People have all kinds of varied needs for information."
"By selectively controlling the internet, by trying to solve one problem, they risk creating a lot of other, unforeseen problems when people search for results," he said.
Last week, China's state media regulator further boosted controls over media content with new restrictions on foreign television shows, saying that only independently produced TV with "Chinese cultural genes" would make it to air or online in future.
Online activist Lai Rifu agreed, saying that the new rules are superfluous.
"Actually, most of the controls on search engine results are aimed at managing what ordinary people are about to see online, and they are already very effective," Lai said.
"Anything we might want to see online has already long since been deleted anyway, so these rules won't do anything," he said.
He said anyone seeking information critical of the ruling Chinese Communist Party wouldn't be using Chinese search engines anyway.
"Most activists or dissidents have long since stopped using Chinese search engines, as well as a good many websites," Lai said.
The move is the latest in a long string of controls on what Chinese internet users can see online, and comes amid an ideological campaign launched by President Xi Jinping earlier this year.
The party's internal disciplinary arm has warned its powerful propaganda department that it is failing to exert enough control over public opinion, particularly online and in universities.
Meanwhile, Xi has hit out at "western" ideas entering Chinese public debate, adding that he wants all public debate to be shaped by the Communist Party and not by "hostile foreign forces" peddling values like democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Earlier this month, authorities in the central province of Henan set up an online task force comprised of volunteers from schools and universities who wage an ideological "struggle" on behalf of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ha Si-man and Pan Jiaqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.