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Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter analogue, reveals users’ locations and IP addresses

To the surprise of many users, China’s largest Twitter-esque microblogging website, Sina Weibo, announced on Thursday that it will publish users’ IP addresses and location data in an effort to keep their content honest and nice.

In a post whose title translates as “IP Territorial Function Upgrade Announcement,” the company stated it was taking the action to protect users’ rights, and to make the service more pleasant to use.

“In order to reduce undesirable behaviors such as impersonating parties, malicious rumors … as well as to ensure the authenticity and transparency of the disseminated content, the site launched the ‘IP Territory’ function in March this year,” announced the social media platform’s official account in Chinese.

The function will see users’ IP addresses recorded, and the province or municipality from which they post appended to their output.

And no, clarified Weibo, the functionality cannot be turned off.

Bryan Tan, a partner at tech-centric law firm Reed Smith, said he doubts the measure will be effective.

“Conventional thinking is that IP addresses may be considered personal data because they could reveal exact locations (and hence are personal data),” he told The Register by email. “So from an outside China point of view, it would be eyebrow-raising. The stated aim is noble, but a blunt tool usually has a chilling effect which affects all kinds of speech, not just misinformation.”

Some Chinese Weibo users expressed similar sentiments, especially over privacy concerns.

One user asked “Why should I know where netizens come from and where they go? Why do netizens want to know where I came from and where I want to go?”

Others sought workarounds and posed question as to what would happen if they denied Weibo location permissions.

The new feature works even when users post from mobile devices with location services disabled. A VPN might defeat the location service – but they’re mostly illegal in China.

Some users welcomed the change.

“I feel this initiative not only standardizes civilized speech, but is to prevent foreign forces from provoking various confrontations on the Chinese network, After all, in these special times, China is indeed a thorn in the eyes of too many countries. In reality, a lot of spies have been arrested recently, and cyber spies are more invincible …” wrote one Weibo user.

Weibo’s move is very much in line with Beijing’s many recent actions aimed at keeping China’s internet nice and dissent-free.

The latter aim was advanced this week, with Douyin – the app known as TikTok outside China – asking users to report posts that criticize China’s leaders or economic policies.

That request, and Weibo’s actions, come amid unusual levels of anti-government sentiment being expressed online during long city-wide COVID-19 lockdowns across China.

Parts of Shanghai have been in strict lockdown for over a month, with most residents forbidden from stepping outside for any reason other than getting a COVID test. Some of the the populace has loudly complained of hunger – both online and by shouting out their windows.

Government-issued vegetable boxes are delivered to registered residents, but are often seen as insufficient. In early April, WeChat hashtags discussing food shortages, such as “scrambling to secure food in Shanghai” (#上海抢菜#) and “anxieties over food supplies in Shanghai” (#上海疫情下的抢菜焦虑#) were allegedly blocked.

Around the same time, street signs appeared in Beijing warning residents they should “not post pandemic-related messages online”. Others advised “the internet is full of perils, exercise caution on the internet” – a message aimed at discrediting complaints.

In Shanghai recently, a loudspeaker in a residential area blared messages stating that foreign forces are behind pandemic protests.

Beijing’s expectations of a censored social media landscape pre-date the current COVID outbreak. It is the main reason LinkedIn left the Middle Kingdom last October, and the country shut down Reddit-like Douban in December (on the pretext that it was hosting notoriously mean fandom communities). ®