Researchers from the Australian National University and University of Sydney outline their ethnographic study of Baidu’s international expansion, which will examine Baidu’s business model in China and the application of this model to its international expansion. This project is part of CGCS’s Internet Policy Observatory (IPO).
Search engines are powerful and profitable conduits of our information age, shaping and directing the queries we make and our perceptions of the data we search. The parameters by which search engines—and indeed all such tools including social media platforms—filter and frame the Internet are thus potentially profound in cultural, political and financial terms. Even self-avowedly neutral Google has come under scrutiny for allegedly ranking search results to suit its commercial interests.
Other search engines are more open about the link between user experiences and profit. For Baidu, China’s leading search engine, this has meant a history of mixing paid and unpaid search results, and allegedly close adherence to the Chinese government’s censorship demands. In addition to Baidu, commentators have also highlighted increasingly close links between the Kremlin and Yandex, Russia’s dominant search engine.
Like Yandex, Baidu has recently begun expanding internationally, seeking to capture emerging markets with a range of internet tools including search and social products. Since 2011, Baidu has expanded into Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt, Brazil and Argentina. The company also inked an agreement with Orange, the largest mobile operator in the Middle East and Africa. Baidu views its experiences in China as a useful advantage in developing markets. According to Kaiser Kuo, Director of International Communications at Baidu, the company already serves a developing world market with a ‘relatively unsophisticated user base,’ and has, ‘gotten really good at developing technologies and products that are appropriate for those sorts of markets.’ This means that Baidu has designed products appropriate for low-data, low-literacy, and low-digital literacy markets. Baidu’s experiences in China, however, mean the company also has experience accepting state requests for information management.
Over the next few months, as part of CGCS’s Internet Policy Observatory (IPO), a team from the Australian National University (ANU) and the University of Sydney will conduct an ethnographic study of Baidu’s international expansion. This project will examine Baidu’s business model in China and the application of this model to its international expansion, particularly its approach to the user experience and to the digital habits of ‘unsophisticated’ users in emerging markets. We will use Baidu’s expansion into Vietnam as an initial case study given the country’s history of state censorship and close relationship with China. Indeed, preliminary testing suggests that there are some limitations on users’ ability to post political material on the Vietnamese version of Baidu’s search/social hybrid product Postbar.
The research team comprises Graeme Smith, an expert in Chinese companies’ foreign investment practices; Jia Guan, who recently completed her PhD examining the conceptualisation and practice of soft power in the People’s Republic of China from the Mao era to the present day; and Sarah Logan, who has recently been appointed the Digital Politics Research Fellow in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies at the ANU.
This project does not intend to contribute to the demonization of Chinese telecommunication companies, or suggest that Baidu is in any way an arm of the Chinese state. Rather, this research is the beginning of a much larger research project focusing on the geopolitics of search. It addresses the implications of framing online user experiences on a global scale. In doing so, the project discusses the role of information in international politics, a topic chronically under-researched in the discipline of International Relations.
Overall this project contributes to two interdisciplinary bodies of research. The first addresses a fundamental gap in International Relations scholarship: the conceptualisation of power in the context of huge shifts in the information landscape. Existing conceptions of power in International Relations, from material power to ‘soft power,’ arguably fail to capture what we refer to as the curatorial power inherent in the framing of information intrinsic to search tools. The second body of research this project contributes to concerns the relationship between state interests and internet governance. This topic has been thrown into sharp relief by recent discussions in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations. Specifically, this project adds depth to discussions about China’s role in international internet politics by focusing on a company that is neither state-owned nor directed, but still draws strongly on Chinese internet experiences. Baidu’s international expansion may mean that these experiences could inform the way millions of first-time users will access information about the world and its politics.
Graeme Smith is a postdoctoral fellow in the China Studies Centre, University of Sydney His research has explored Chinese investment in the Asia-Pacific region, with ongoing projects in Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia and Myanmar.
Sarah Logan is the inaugural Digital Technologies Research Fellow in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies at the Australian National University. Her research focuses on the political economy of information and communications technologies in developing democracies and on the impact of such technologies on the practice and theory of International Relations. She tweets as @circt.
Jia Guan is a recent PhD graduate of the Australian National University. Her research interests lie in the development of new forms of soft power and the relationship between domestic party politics and the practice of soft power in Chinese foreign policy.