China's Search Engine War has Cease Fire - Maybe!

By Peter Bernstein November 01, 2012

For those of you in Asia Pacific, this isn’t going to be a surprise, as it has gained wide circulation. For everyone else, take note.

The Global Times, the authoritative source of news in China, today posted an article detailing what is hoped to be a cessation of certain hostilities in the hotly contested battle between (aka in China the “3B War”) search engine giant, Baidu, and upstart Qihoo 360 Technology Co., an anti-virus firm that recently launched a frontal assault on Baidu’s virtual monopoly on search.

According to the Global Times, citing a statement on the Internet Society of China’s website, 12 of China's major search engine operators, including Qihoo 360, Baidu, and Tecent's search engine, attended a signing ceremony in Beijing, along with officials from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), to institute a self-regulation agreement to stop the respective companies from mining each other’s private user data through “crawslers.” 

There has been an ongoing battle, particularly between Baido and Qihoo 360, regarding the theft of the other’s data. This agreement is supposed to put a stop to that. The parties agreed to use the robots.txt protocol, an industry convention to tell cooperating search engines what information they can extract from websites.

As the article notes, “the protocol is designed, among other things, to protect sensitive information from search engine data mining.” And, the agreement came after Baidu filed a lawsuit on October 16 against Qihoo 360 for improper practices such as mining Baidu's data by violating the robots.txt protocol.The article goes on to say that Qihoo 360 claimed in a statement sent to the Global Times that they have obeyed the protocols of other websites, while Baidu attempts to block Qihoo 360's access to the domestic browser market with a discriminatory protocol.  

"We hope that this agreement will help forge a fair robots.txt protocol mechanism, instead of a competition tool for Baidu, the domestic search engine giant," it quoted from the statement. Despite the intercession of MIIT, as the article notes, self-regulation is not likely to have much of an impact. The agreement is not legally binding and here is not articulation of liability should a party be found of not acting in good faith. 

The real problem is that there is too much at stake. 

In fact, for those not familiar, Baidu is the fifth most heavily trafficked website in the world according to Alexa, and it holds the same kind of dominance in China that Google has in much of the rest of the world. As I have pointed out in numerous articles on ecosystem wars, in the battle for supremacy you have to like the position of those who command search. This is very serious business.   

Lastly, as the article notes, the real issue here is not just a spate between Internet companies but the fact that those whose data has been mined have no legal recourse if they’re harmed by the 3B battles. It turns out that concerns about privacy know no boundaries, and that the need to feed the “big data” beast for competitive advantage in China as elsewhere is moving much faster than institutional abilities to keep pace when it comes to protecting users. 

If experience on the U.S. side of the Pacific is an example, self-regulation without harsh punitive strictures may cause things to be more hidden from public view but are likely not to deter companies from not just trying to learn as much as possible about us, but to even attempt to get such information from competitors to better hone their analytics. 

Edited by Braden Becker
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