Baidu Sues Amid Claims of Sexual Content on Kids’ Education Apps
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2017-08-24 10:37:01

Following allegations that Baidu employees planted pornographic content on a question-and-answer education app for children, the Chinese internet giant on Tuesday sued a WeMedia account and an education website executive for slander.

The two defendants are Fenbi CEO Zhang Xiaolong and a public account on messaging app WeChat called “CoolLabs.” In the lawsuit, Baidu said Zhang and CoolLabs had “severely infringed” upon the company’s right to reputation and requested that they delete all related articles, issue a written apology, and pay 15 million yuan ($2.25 million) in damages.

The lawsuit can be traced back to earlier this month, when two rival K-12 homework assistance apps, Zuoyebang and Xiaoyuansouti, became embroiled in a public relations war. Xiaoyuansouti has since announced that they will countersue Zuoyebang for 50 million yuan and Baidu — one of Zuoyebang’s biggest investors — for 15.01 million yuan.

On Aug. 9, a user on microblog platform Weibo with 27 million followers accused Xiaoyuansouti, whose developer is Fenbi’s parent company, of hosting questions that were pornographic or otherwise offensive. One post, for example, offered accommodation to the “pale-skinned, beautiful, big-boobed and big-bootied” victims of the recent Jiuzhaigou earthquake. Later, someone claiming to be a parent in Beijing complained to media about semi-nude photos and violent text on Xiaoyuansouti.

On Aug. 14, Xiaoyuansouti held a press conference to announce that they had traced the IP addresses of users who uploaded pornographic text and found that they belonged to Baidu. Xiaoyuansouti further alleged that Zuoyebang had assembled a PR team to discredit them, and that the Beijing tipster was in fact a Baidu employee. Determining that Baidu had violated the law, Xiaoyuansouti said they would submit their evidence to the police.

The same day, Zuoyebang issued a statement on their official Weibo account in which they called their rival’s accusations “unprovoked” and “false,” though they said they would not allow this to lead to a “tongue fight.”

But Zuoyebang’s rebuttal did little to persuade net users, including Zhang and the CoolLabs writers. In the days that followed, Zhang livestreamed several times to weigh in on the dispute. And on Aug. 16, CoolLabs published a widely read, widely shared article titled “Baidu has ordered its employees to insult earthquake victims and broadcast pornographic material to children — what won’t they do for money?”

The next day, Baidu brushed off the article by saying that as such a big company, they’re an easy target. They also explained via Weibo that they are but one of many investors in Zuoyebang, and that they had not instigated the conflict between the two apps.

On Tuesday, CoolLabs published a response to the lawsuit in which they defended their original claims, called Baidu “a really bad company,” and admitted that they did not have the 5 million yuan they were being sued for. The article also pointed to previous scandals involving Baidu, such as the 2016 case of Wei Zexi, a 21-year-old with cancer who used Baidu’s search engine to find a hospital. Wei died after receiving ineffective treatment at a facility that had paid Baidu to appear higher in search results.

Zhang, meanwhile, has been vocal on Weibo since the first lawsuit was announced, even confidently saying that he will cover both himself and CoolLabs if they lose the case.

But most parents and education insiders are less concerned with the he-said, she-said and more concerned with the possibility of sexual content appearing on apps used by millions of children. As of the end of 2016, Zuoyebang and Xiaoyuansouti were China’s two most widely used education apps, with 29 million and 11 million users, respectively.

“I hope these companies can put a stop to this negativity,” a Shanghai-based primary school teacher surnamed Qu told Sixth Tone. “Children should not be the victims in market competition.”

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: A girl does her homework next to Yan'an Road in Shanghai, April 29, 2008. Zhang Dong for Sixth Tone)