Chinese internet giant Baidu is assisting the authorities in an investigation after a state media exposé alleged this week that its online mapping services were being used to provide information about venues where sexual services were available.
Baidu Maps, a location-based mapping service developed by the internet giant, provides contact information for businesses of all types. They are charged a promotional fee to show up on search results using the service.
These include venues that have names which hint at prostitution, according to a report from state-owned Legal Daily on Wednesday.
When reporters searched for the terms “sauna” and “massage”, the service brought up 2,604 results for entertainment venues in Shanghai.
Most of the addresses given were fake, but once a customer dialled the listed telephone number they were connected to middlemen – who call themselves “PRs”. These middlemen would then lead the customer to the real address.
Li Jing, a middleman who claimed he was in charge of more than 20 venues, was quoted as saying that incorrect addresses were listed on the map due to “safety concerns”. He added that every customer had to go through the middlemen because they did not trust strangers.
The report said a venue listed as “Venice Sauna Bath Club” on Baidu Maps was actually a front for prostitution. A reporter for the newspaper was led to an office building and given a price list which included “different levels of women” with prices up to 2,498 yuan (US$374).
Li said he normally spent 20,000 yuan to promote venues on Baidu Maps every month to make sure they were easy to find.
He could make a profit of 20,000 yuan every month after he paid off the fee.
“Many sex workers came to Shanghai after the crackdown on the sex trade in Dongguan,” Li said there were normally 60 female sex workers and 60 middlemen working in a venue.
The report said each middleman needed to find 400 customers per month to ensure he could earn 20,000 yuan a month.
Zhen Cheng, who runs a legitimate massage business in Shanghai, told the newspaper that he had received a lot of calls asking if his shop provided sexual services since he had started listing contact information on the map.
On Wednesday, Baidu posted a statement on its official Weibo account, saying that all of the suspected POI (Points of Interest) had been deleted on its maps to “fake information” that would “affect the user experience”.
It added that some users exploited the platform to “make a profit through illegal business” even though the company been working on ways of vetting registered companies. – SCMP