The website of Qihoo 360, whose new search engine is accused of mining and leaking user data. (Photo courtesy of Qihoo 360)
After launching its internet search service in late August, shares of Qihoo 360 Technology staged a brief rally when the company started challenging leading search engine Baidu in China. But the leading Chinese security software developer is now under attack for possible invasion into internet users' privacy and leaking corporate data.
Unprecedented panic and criticism erupted after users found that when using the Qihoo 360 search service, the company's browsers also simultaneously grabbed and uploaded the users' private information, which then became prone to leaks.
Following criticism in the media, Qihoo 360 on Sept. 10 rolled out an added function called "thumb plan." When users browse web pages, they can submit the domain names to 360 Search by clicking the "thumb button" so that the browsed website will be found by more internet users and obtain higher ranking in search services.
Qihoo claimed the thumb plan was an "innovative service," but critics told the Chinese-language China Business Times that the move was more like an emergency PR campaign and the controversy over data mining is still far from over.
Some said the "thumb button" only shifts the responsibility for invasion of privacy and and data leaking to users themselves because the company can evade responsibility for leaks by claiming that it was the users' own choice to click the button.
Critics said 360 browsers, which have a 30% market share in China behind only Microsoft's Internet Explorer, have now become a supersized Trojan horse to steal secret data. It is ironic that Qihoo, whose security software holds a dominant market share of 80% in the country, has now become the major threat to security on the internet, they said.
Analysts said Qihoo's strategy is to enable anyone using its service to help "crawl" information and build up databases quickly. But the major drawback is that large amounts of private information, including bank account numbers, passwords and corporate internal email messages will also be grabbed and leaked.
Chinese media ranging from daily papers, TV networks and microblogging sites widely reported the security breaches and data leaks. Some companies instructed employees to stop using Qihoo antivirus software after discovering some internal corporate documents had been leaked.
Critics charged that Qihoo has violated the "robots agreement," the general rules governing search engines for security and privacy when grabbing website contents. They pointed out that Microsoft once used IE browsers to grab website and search contents when it rolled out its Bing search service in order to close the gap on Google. It was forced to abandon the practice following pressure from public opinion and judicial authorities.
In addition to adding the thumb plan, Qihoo stepped up an extensive PR campaign in its own defense. It claimed that there is no need to comply with the so-called robots' rules because they resulted mainly from the compromises reached between foreign search engines and websites.
This is a lame and senseless argument to brush aside international rules and practices for search engines, said Jiang Qiping, secretary general of the Informatization Research Center under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. It is wrong to think that the rules of a business line can be recklessly bent by treating such regulations as resulting purely from the arguments and battles between search engines and websites, he said.
Analysts interviewed by China Business Times said that Qihoo should not ignore the pressure from public opinions and the legal risks it faces.
The key strategy for taking on Baidu's dominance still lies in investment in technological development and more effective search functions instead of invading users' privacy and resorting to comprehensive PR tactics, they said.
Jiang Qiping 姜奇平