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Should Online Forums Be Monetized?
 NO. 7 FEBRUARY 18, 2016


Chinese search engine giant Baidu has recently come under fire for selling its health-related Tieba, an online community-based group discussion service, to unlicensed hospitals or quack doctors.

Web user Mayicai, a former administrator of a hemophilia forum at Tieba, said in an online post in early January that he was replaced by Liu Shanxi, a so-called "expert" on the disease, who was exposed by the media as a quack doctor in 2014. Later, Internet users found that at least 40 percent of Baidu's health-related forums had been sold.

Hemophilia is an inherited condition in which the blood of those afflicted doesn't clot normally, leading to excessive bleeding. Previously, the hemophilia forum had served as a platform for sharing experiences and treatment methods. However, selling such forums to third parties opened up the possibility for scams and the publishing of fake advertisements on the website.

Responding to criticisms, Baidu announced to halt the commercialization of its illness-related forums on January 12. The Cyberspace Administration of China said on January 15 that it had talked with Baidu's executives on the matter. The next day, Baidu admitted to its dereliction of duty in managing its online forums and promised to overhaul the company's regulation of the service. Excerpts of the views of some commentators are as follow:

Commercialization is justified 

Han Xiaoqiao (Anhui Daily ): It is Baidu's responsibility to supervise advertisements on its online forums. However, this is not to say that advertisements should be banned on Tieba. Commercialization is necessary for a market economy. Nonetheless, commercial operations should follow basic moral rules. Violations of business ethics and the loose management of online platforms will create serious repercussions. Should certain Internet companies continue to prioritize corporate profits regardless of social responsibilities, they may not only lose users' trust but also blemish their own reputation.

Internet companies should prioritize their users' interests and needs as well as bear in mind the market's regulations. They should also take steps to improve the quality of their services and close any loopholes in their internal management. Meanwhile, additional supervision should be put in place to prompt Internet companies to shoulder their responsibilities and regulate their business models adequately.

It is Baidu's social responsibility, rather than a legal obligation, to provide customers with platforms to exchange their experiences. Therefore, had the company informed users from the beginning that it provided paid services, and that customers had to pay in order to become administrators in its forums, it would have been less of a debacle when it introduced profit-driven doctors to run the sites. The problem is that Baidu sold its online forums to substandard medical institutions at a time when an online society of not-for-profit mutual assistance had already solidified. Users could not help but wonder whether Baidu was selling online services or the trust of its users. If trust and care between users become commodities, is there any limit to the application of market principles?

Leading Internet companies such as Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent have enabled China's Internet technology to catch up with the latest developments in the world. However, an increasing amount of problems are emerging in the industry, such as a lack of forward-looking strategies and original technologies. Therefore, these companies should shoulder more social responsibilities in order to promote the healthy development of China's Internet sector.

Zhu Haijiu ( Baidu's suspension of its online forum monetization and introduction of non-governmental organizations to run them may not be a step toward progress. Its move to commercialize its Tieba platform is a failed attempt to make profit rather than a moral issue. However, the public's condemnation of the company is worrisome.

As a business, Baidu is justified in being profit-driven. It should make profit by using premium services to win over customers. It can certainly retain some non-profit qualities, but the company has the right to decide how it does business. Free information services are not sustainable without advertisements. There must be somebody to pay for the services. Customers should learn to accept the commercialization; otherwise, they can choose to quit their use of those forums.

There are those who hold that commercialization should be applied prudently when it comes to sensitive areas such as health, as it affects people's wellbeing. However, personal safety can also be assured through commercialization, since companies disregarding customers' safety will find it hard to survive in a competitive market.

Baidu's fault doesn't lie in the monetization of its online forums, but in allowing fake advertisements to exist--why can't Baidu improve its services and crack down on such malpractices? The answer is that Baidu almost has a monopoly over online search services in China. Without sufficient competition from strong opponents, Baidu lacks the motivation to improve its services.

Lessons learned 

Zou Chunxia ( Take a glance at the Internet industry as a whole--Baidu is not alone in being embroiled in scandals. The e-commerce giant Alibaba, for instance, has been under scrutiny for its lack of supervision against vendors selling fake products. Legislation regulating the Internet industry often lags behind the industry's rapid development. As a result, relevant business models have to grow by trial and error. Baidu's attempts at commercialization have become a valuable lesson for everyone involved.

From a broader perspective, the ability of a company to innovate and create new avenues for profit is part of the economy's backbone. Therefore, commercialization experiments should not stop because of a few setbacks. Striking a balance between commercial benefits and social responsibilities should be the goal for sustainable economic development.

The Baidu incident has exposed problems in cyberspace governance. Legislation regarding cyberspace should be improved, and the management of the virtual space needs to be strengthened to prevent similar incidents from occurring again.

Shi Jing (Nanfang Daily ): As Tieba is classified according to the needs of its users, it can provide precise targets for advertisers. The popularity of the forums has drawn in a number of advertisers--should the forums' commercialization be unconstrained?

Previously, advertisements on Baidu's piano forum had also been met with resistance. However, as users on the forum had a demand for pianos, they gradually accepted the practice. Illness-related forums are substantially different, as illnesses can become matters of life and death. The hemophilia forum was popular because it had provided users with objective information regarding the illness, and didn't actively recommend users to any hospital or doctor for profit-making motives.

Inserting advertisements into online forums serving the greater good of society will inevitably harm the reputation of these platforms.

Copyedited by Bryan Michael Galvan 

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