The Chinese search engine's Baike online encyclopedia blocks politically sensitive entries; some say it condones plagiarism and copyright abuse
Baidu (BIDU) is best known as the leading Internet search engine in China, where it's far ahead of Silicon Valley's Google (GOOG). But Baidu, based in Beijing, also provides a number of other Net services, including an online Chinese-language encyclopedia that has recently become the most popular in mainland China. The story of how Baidu came to dominate the country's online encyclopedia business helps explain its success in search, raises questions about political expediency and plagiarism, and highlights the difficulties facing Western companies in China.
Baidu launched its encyclopedia service 19 months ago when it was presented with a unique opportunity. The Chinese government had cut off the country's access to the Chinese-language version of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which includes politically sensitive entries on topics such as Tiananmen Square and democracy. So Baidu launched its own online encyclopedia, Baidu Baike, which would not cover such sensitive issues. The new encyclopedia, which like Wikipedia is largely built by its users, quickly had many of the same (non-sensitive) entries used at Wikipedia, often repeated verbatim.
Today, Baidu Baike is the leading encyclopedia online in China, and the second-largest Net encyclopedia anywhere, after the English-language version of Wikipedia. But the company has drawn fire for its success from some critics who say it has been built on copyright violations and complicity with government censorship. Wikipedia clearly believes that Baidu has crossed an ethical line, although the American company is planning no legal action to stop what it believes is plagiarism on the part of Baidu. "We only appeal to their moral judgment about what is right," says Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, in an e-mail interview.
The Profit In Cooperation
The dispute reflects the complicated reality of China and the Internet. U.S. politicians and advocates have pushed American companies to take a stand against a Chinese government that blocks online news and discussions about controversial topics. On Nov. 6, Jerry Yang, the chief executive of Yahoo! (YHOO), testified before a Congressional panel (BusinessWeek.com, 11/6/07)) and was excoriated for Yahoo's cooperation with the Chinese government in a case that landed one journalist in jail. "Morally you are pygmies," said Tom Lantos (D