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Chinese social media to display user locations based on IP address, including platforms from ByteDance and Zhihu

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Several Chinese social platforms, including Quora-like Zhihu and the domestic version of TikTok, Douyin, announced on Friday that they will soon display user locations based on internet protocol (IP) addresses, a feature that users cannot disable.

The platforms said the measure, which is not mandated by law, is meant to "prevent netizens from pretending to be locals and spreading rumours". Other platforms implementing the change include TikTok owner ByteDance's news aggregator Jinri Toutiao, Douyin short video rival Kuaishou, and lifestyle community Xiaohongshu, which all said locations will be visible on user profiles. Zhihu, China's popular question-and-answer site, said user locations will be displayed alongside each post.

Weibo has already been displaying locations on user profiles since announcing the move last month, citing fake information related to hot topics like Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic.

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While China's central government has been reining in online content over the past year with increasing regulatory oversight, there is no official regulation requiring platforms to display user location. In March, the internet watchdog Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) said this year's campaign to clean up online chaos included cracking down on rumours.

The platforms said only a user's province in China will be shown or a person's country or region if the IP address is located overseas. The full IP address, which is assigned by internet providers for each connection, will not be displayed.

China has seen an outpouring of anger and frustration expressed on social media over the past month as Covid-19 cases climbed across the country and cities implemented strict lockdown measures, particularly in Shanghai. Nationwide, China has seen more than 10,000 new cases per day for the past two weeks.

In cities like Shanghai and Changchun, people have complained online about food shortages and supply chain disruptions. The CAC has told social networking sites to fight the spread of rumours.

Publicly displayed locations will soon cover users of some of China's most populous online communities. Douyin had more than 600 million daily active users by Aug 2020, while Kuaishou and Weibo had about 323 million and 250 million, respectively, by the end of 2021.

The move marks the biggest effort since 2017 to introduce more transparency to user identities online. Five years ago, a slew of social platforms started requiring users to associate their accounts with a phone number, which in China must be registered with a national ID.

Netizens have expressed mixed reactions to the news. Weibo user Haoyu said it could help reduce rumours while protecting user privacy, since the displayed location is not very specific. Another Weibo user going by Shenghuozaibiechu said it would be better if users could choose to disable the function.

However, some people noted the ease of obscuring IP addresses online, even though methods such as using a virtual private network (VPN) are technically illegal. Because of this, Weibo user ScarfIsWarm called the feature "useless".

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.