China’s internet platforms are revealing user location—and embarrassing nationalist bloggers

Where now?
Where now?
Image: REUTERS/Carlos Barria
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After a number of Chinese social media platforms began displaying user locations drawn from internet protocol addresses, it turned out some of the country’s most nationalistic online figures share one thing in common: They are all abroad.

From Chinese actor Wu Jing, whose Wolf Warrior movie series have become a major symbol of Chinese nationalism, to Lian Yue, a patriotic columnist who has vowed to “never emigrate from China,” their displayed locations are in countries like Thailand and Japan, respectively. The reveal led many to mock the influencers for their so-called “offshore patriotism,” a term used for those who aggressively defend China from the comfort of their foreign residences.

“To be anti US is [their] work, and going to live in the US is [their] real life,” said a user on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.

Even Di Ba, one of China’s largest nationalist forums that has organized mass online attacks against Hong Kong protesters, faced a backlash after its location on Weibo was found to be in Taiwan. The account now displays as being located in China’s Zhejiang province.

Supporters say that in some cases the displayed location could belong to agents who run accounts for celebrities, while Lian said he is in Japan only temporarily on a medical visit. Wu’s location now shows as being in Beijing.

Why China’s social media sites are exposing IP location

Weibo started revealing user locations (link in Chinese) in March. The platform said the step was aimed at preventing the spread of misinformation and inauthentic activity about trending topics such as covid controls in China and the Russia-Ukraine crisis by users claiming to be in the countries involved. Other platforms, including Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok), short video app Kuaishou, China’s Quora Zhihu, and lifestyle app Xiaohongshu followed suit last month. Users can’t turn off the function, which displays provinces or cities if the users are in China, based on where they last posted. For overseas users, countries are shown.

Ironically, the exposure of user IP addresses was a demand raised by many nationalists, who often label government critics as foreign spies or troll armies hired by foreign governments especially the US. Some internet users have cheered the move as a way to intimidate “overseas troll armies.”

“Prominent nationalists have been clamoring for more sophisticated methods of censorship and surveillance like this in order to combat what they see as the threat from hostile foreign forces,” said Fergus Ryan, senior analyst at the International Cyber Policy Centre of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank.

When it comes to regulatory justification for the move, China’s top internet watchdog, the Cyberspace Administration of China, proposed rules last October that could require platforms to show users’ IP addresses. But the platforms didn’t cite any government regulations in their announcements, and simply said they were responding to the need to maintain an “authentic and orderly” vibe in their user communities. The display comes during a long-running lockdown in Shanghai that has prompted an outpouring of sharing and criticism online.

The companies didn’t reply to requests for comment.

“Weibo got out ahead of the other platforms, possibly because they were just more aware of the pressure that was coming from certain nationalists about this. The other platforms were always going to follow suit because the proposal to do this came from the CAC,” said Ryan.

Some Chinese experts have praised the function as Beijing’s effort to “clean up” the internet, and argued that rough IP addresses are in the domain of public information and should not be seen as an invasion of user privacy. But many disagree.

Pushback from users

The move furthers the loss of anonymity internet users face in the country, regardless of their political stance. Users have already been required for many years to register online accounts using real identities or mobile phone numbers, and in some cases the government has accessed people’s private chats on apps like WeChat. The location exposure means they have to give away even more privacy, this time to the public.

“Public display of a user’s IP address is a significant privacy invasion that can put people in physical danger and reveal intimate details about their lives,” says Aaron Mackey, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit focuses on defending digital civil liberties. “In the United States, a federal privacy laws prohibits online services from disclosing this information without legal process, such as a subpoena or court order. These laws make clear that although [a service or website] may know [its] user’s IP address, the general public does not.”

Already, some female users on Xiaohongshu say they have received sexually harassing messages from men who are in the same province as them, according to the users’ posts. “I feel this is like putting a tracker on me…This could help those who like to dox others to locate people more accurately,” a college student told Quartz. “Now before I make comments [online], I need to consider whether the remarks are loyal to the country.”

Some users have started buying proxy IP services to cover their real locations, which can purchased for around 6 yuan ($0.9) per day, according to Chinese media. Another way for users to hide their locations is to use a virtual private network, software already used by many to access foreign websites blocked by China’s great firewall, even though it’s risky because the country has cracked down on the tool.

“One obvious impact is that it will have a chilling effect on people. It could make them a lot less likely to express their opinion if they are more readily identifiable,” said Ryan.