By Amani Enayetullah ‘23
Over the years, news and rumors around China’s involvement in controlling their media outlets and internet have circulated the globe. China’s government is infamous for heavily monitoring their citizens in all aspects of life from setting limits to how many children a household can have to keeping tabs on what you post on social media websites. Chinese citizens are almost locked from the outside world and forced to resort to social media and news outlets that are controlled by the state. To the outside world, this type of heavy involvement of the state in the everyday lives of their people is alarming.
Recently, Weibo, China’s form of Twitter, announced that they would start to post the IP addresses of their users in order to combat misinformation surrounding COVID-19 and the Ukraine and Russia conflict. This new feature, that cannot be turned off by platform users, was designed to “reduce bad behavior such as impersonating parties involved in hot topic issues, malicious disinformation and traffic scraping, and to ensure the authenticity and transparency of the content disseminated” according to the initial notice Weibo published informing the community on this change. The feature works by adding an extra label to the users’ comments that indicates which province or municipality the citizen lives in according to their IP address.
Other Chinese social media platforms have followed suit as both Zhihu, a Quora-like platform, and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, have also announced that they plan to implement the same feature for all users of their respective platforms. Although, there is no federal law enacting these changes to user privacy, it is evident that the government has a big role here. It is unlikely that all popular forms of social media in China would be implementing the same type of feature at once if they did not have a larger power breathing down their necks. The government is known to keep the reins of cyberspace tight within their own country and have implemented laws which force companies to store certain types of information on their users as well as allow the government access to this data at any point in time. Platforms which fail to follow the stringent rules of the law are subject to fines. Weibo has been on the backend of these fines on numerous incidents with a total of 14.4 million yuan paid to the government in 2021.
The decisions of Weibo, Zhihu, Douyin, and many others to start sharing the IP addresses of their users without permission is an infringement to the privacy rights of their users. It is likely that as a result of this new feature, users of Chinese social media platforms will start to censor themselves even more than they already do in order to avoid any conflict with the government. It is evident that the Chinese government is coercing companies to adopt this feature in order to control their citizens and monitor the types of speech and content being spread on the web.