Is Sponsored Search Good or Evil?

A Chinese college student died of cancer after going to a hospital “searched sponsored” by a search engine.

In class, we studied how advertisers could bid for spots on search engines. We discussed the advantage of paid search for its efficiency, but did not really talk about the legal and moral issues latent in the mechanism. Recently, there was a tragedy related to sponsored search in China, which might be an alarm for us as well as search service providers.

Wei Zexi, a college student, died of synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, on April 12. Before his death, he wrote a long post on the Chinese version of Quora that detailed his experience seeking treatment. In a promoted search result on Baidu, he learned of a hospital in Beijing that offered treatment for people with his condition. His family borrowed money (more than 200,000 yuan, or about $30,000) to pay for a type of immunotherapy from the hospital. This form of cancer is generally treated with surgery and chemotherapy, and he accused Baidu of taking money to promote less proven treatments in its search results. Later, it also turned out the hospital was not actually a government and military hospital, despite its name being “the Second Hospital of the Beijing Armed Police Corps.”

After his death, there was a heated discussion online about whether Baidu should be held responsible for this event. Especially, many argued that Baidu was only money-oriented and failed to act as a gatekeeper against its bidders. Some information sources disclosed that Baidu charged at least 2000 yuan (about $300) on average for every click directed to such health service providers. With the majority denouncing the company, some other voices also emerged saying that it is users who should be responsible for discerning information online, especially medical information that is directly related to one’s health.

This debate seems quite similar with the classical one: is technology good or bad? My position is this: technology is good only when it is checked and balanced. The auction mechanism is indeed a beautiful design from the perspective of economists and computer scientists. However, when those power parties become obsessed with making profits from it, it is the general public that suffers. After all,  in this world of information asymmetry, the less advantaged do not have the same capacity as the advantaged in terms of discerning information, let alone their desperate needs could further blind their eyes.

That’s why I am really glad, or even to the extent of being relieved, to see the following news, right after Wei’s death.

Google to ban all payday loan ads

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