The tragic death of a 21-year old student who used a search engine to look for last-resort medical treatment for his terminal cancer has recently caused public outrage and an institutional crackdown in China. According to various news reports, a student named Wei died after receiving an expensive experimental treatment, provided by a hospital he chose on the basis of a key-word search on China’s leading search engine. Wei’s passing caused a great deal of controversy about the liability of search engines for (medical) advertising, and led to a government clampdown on medical and key-word advertisements on search engines.

The public outcry was mainly sparked by a post on Wei’s blog, published a week before his death, in which he expressed his anger with the search engine, and explained that he felt seriously misled by the sponsored key word results, and held the search engine responsible.

A joint government investigation commission was established quickly after Wei’s death (comprising officers from the SIIO[1], the SAIC[2], the NHFPC[3] and the local Beijing authorities) to investigate the facts and to expose any flaws in both the search engine’s paid listing system and the hospital’s advertising and medical services.

The commission concluded that the objectiveness of search results was seriously compromised by paid listings, and that the search results were liable to mislead users. The reasons include the unreasonably high priority given to paid listings, the absence of any noticeable logos or remarks regarding paid key-word advertisements and the absence of any objective review information or certificates. The investigation team therefore published its report, and ordered the search engine to take the following measures:

  • Remove all illegal medical advertising such as advertising for drugs, medical services, healthcare products, etc. (any such online advertising is in fact already prohibited under China’s strict new Advertising Law, see here)
  • Refrain from publishing any key-word advertisements for medical service providers that have not obtained qualifications or licenses from the authorities;
  • Refrain from arranging search results by amount of fees paid for the key-word advertisement.
  • Rank results on the basis of their reputation. Key-word advertisements must not exceed 30% of all key-word search result, must be marked as such and must contain a warning.
  • Establish a user complaint and compensation system.

The team’s investigation into the hospital’s practices found it also committed unlawful and false advertising. The hospital was moreover ordered to stop using any unapproved medical treatments and was enjoined from publishing further unlawful and misleading advertisements. The authorities also started a thorough inspection into the qualifications and licenses of the medical staff, and pledged to punish all unlicensed staff.

In another report, the State Internet Information Office also announced a new set of Regulations on Information Search Services on the Internet, which are expected to be issued soon. The SAIC also pledged to will expedite the review procedure of its new draft Internet Advertising Regulations. The draft Regulations have explicitly included paid search engine listings as an example of Internet advertisement. Under the draft Regulations, paid search engine listings must also be distinguishable from other listings so that the audience can tell that these are paid advertisements.

These new sets of Regulations are expected to lead to further tightening of the Chinese advertising legislation on medical services, medication, health food and online advertisements, which was already markedly tightened under China’s 2015 Advertising Law, about which we previously published here and here. In fact, the new Advertising Law already contains a blanket prohibition on the online advertising of medical products and services. It is expected that this prohibition, which was apparently not strictly enforced before, will now be strictly applied.