Popular travel website locked in data-stealing row

Popular travel website locked in data-stealing row

Travel website Mafengwo filed a defamation lawsuit yesterday after it was accused of copying reviews from competitors and fabricating 85 percent of reviews on its website.

Citing domestic data analysis startup Hooray Data, a social media account on WeChat under the name of XiaoShengBiBi said on Saturday that 18 million out of 21 million comments on Mafengwo were copied from industry rivals like Ctrip and Meituan-Dianping.

It said the data company sampled a third of the 1.16 million restaurants listed on Mafengwo, and detected 7,454 fake accounts. Each account had copied several thousand reviews from websites such as Ctrip, Meituan-Dianping, Agoda, Yelp and eLong.

These accounts copied 5.72 million and 12.21 million reviews on catering and hotels, respectively, said the social media account. It also said the number of reviews on Mafengwo plummeted on weekends and users seemed to be more active during working hours rather than at meal times. It estimated that 85 percent of reviews on Mafengwo were copied from other sites.

Mafengwo said in a statement yesterday that reviews only accounted for 2.91 percent of its data, while the majority of its business was about travel guides, tips, stories and Q&As.

It also said in the statement that the number of accounts with suspected fake comments were very few and had already been deleted.

Mafengwo said it removes 26,000 illegal ads and 15,000 illegal accounts from its website on average every week, adding that the accusation was misleading and against the facts.

Mafengwo said in August that it would initiate a new round of funding to raise US$300 million after which it hopes the firm will be valued between US$2 billion to US$2.5 billion, but the data scandal may cast a shadow on its plans, industry insiders said. Mafengwo had obtained four rounds of funding totaling over US$238 million. The website claimed it has about 100 million active users every month with over 135,000 travel articles published monthly.

The value of the travel giant is estimated to decline to 200-300 million (US$28.8-43.2 million) yuan because of the scandal, and can no longer be called a unicorn company, said Liu Xingliang, an Internet expert.

Stealing data from other platforms is common among Internet companies and violates the consumer protection and e-commerce laws, according to industry analyst Chen Liteng.