China's Baidu in dispute with upstart rival Qihoo 360 over access to its site

Qihoo 360 has launched a new search engine that has caused controversy with Baidu

Chinese search giant Baidu on Thursday weighed in on a dispute with a local rival search engine over access to its websites, by stating it welcomed the competition, but opposed any acts that would infringe on its Internet services.

The statement on an official microblog is the company's first comment on a brewing controversy with Chinese Internet firm Qihoo 360, which launched its own search engine in the country to provide an alternative to Baidu.

Baidu has long held the top spot in China's search engine space, with a market share of around 80 percent, according to different research firms. But earlier this month, security vendor and Internet browser provider Qihoo 360 launched its own search engine that some experts believe could take sizeable market share away from Baidu, given Qihoo 360's already large user base in China.

In launching its new search engine, however, Qihoo 360 has violated Baidu's turf. The company's search indexes Baidu products, such as its question-and-answer sites, and encyclopedia pages. But Qihoo 360 did this, while ignoring Baidu's own robot exclusion protocol, which only allows certain competitors such as Google, MSN, and few others to access the sites.

On Tuesday night, Baidu responded by blocking off access to these products to Qihoo users. When users clicked a Baidu site in Qihoo 360's search, they were often redirected to Baidu's homepage.

To fight back, Qihoo 360 has replaced redirected links with cached page views of the Baidu sites. On Thursday, a Qihoo 360 post on its official microblog said it should also be allowed access to Baidu's sites, calling them an "Internet resource" akin to the content other Chinese firms are providing on the Web.

The company has also flatly denied it steals search results from rivals to power its own services, calling it a rumor. Qihoo 360 spent seven years to develop its own search engine, according to the company.

Qihoo 360 has previously been involved in heated disputes with Internet firms including Baidu, and social networking and games provider Tencent, with the companies accusing Qihoo 360 of unfair business practices. In those cases, Qihoo 360 had found security problems with Baidu and Tencent's software.

For Baidu, Qihoo 360's new search engine represents a direct threat to the company, because of its potential to take away traffic from Baidu's sites, said Mark Natkin, a managing director with Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting.

"There should never have been any question that Baidu wasn't going to take Qihoo 360's entry into the online search space lying down," he said.

Chinese IT legal expert Zhao Zhanling has also pointed to how Baidu could sue Qihoo 360 for copyright infringement and competing unfairly, because Qihoo 360 violated the company sites' robot exclusion protocol. Baidu has previously declined to comment on whether it will take legal action against Qihoo 360.

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