IP proxy services have become a sought-after tool in China less than a month after the country’s main social media platforms started to reveal all users’ location information.

Why it matters: Chinese internet users are in a cat and mouse game with the country’s social media platforms which have dealt a blow to users’ privacy by forcing them to reveal their geolocation. 

  • Since April 15, major Chinese social media platforms including ByteDance’s Jinri Toutiao and Douyin, Kuaishou, and Xiaohongshu announced that they will start to display all users’ location information by way of revealing the region where their IP addresses are located. Weibo did the same in late April. Most Chinese users don’t have an option to turn off their IP locations. Thus, many online businesses are selling fake IP proxy services to help users to cover up their true location.
  • The new measure has already exposed many accounts for promoting content unrelated to their locations. For example, an account with an IP address in the central province of Hunan was shown running a marketing account on local fun activities in the capital city, Beijing. 

Details: Chinese media outlet The Paper on Thursday reported (in Chinese) that many businesses are now selling services that change IP addresses for as little as RMB 6 ($0.9) per day on e-commerce platforms like Taobao. Many of these businesses say that they can alter location information (in Chinese) on platforms like Weibo and Douyin.

  • The new rules have had an eye-opening effect on many users. For instance, the Weibo account of Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, shows it has an IP address in the central province of Henan, possibly revealing the whereabouts of the team that runs the account (the IP address is only revealed to logged in users). Meanwhile, many popular marketing personalities with overseas images and selling points are shown to be located in China. 
  • IP addresses can reveal users’ approximate geographic information. An IP proxy service can route one’s connection to another location so as to hide their real location. 

Context: Social e-commerce platform Xiaohongshu is one of the few platforms that gives users the option to hide their location information. 

  • Toutiao, ByteDance’s algorithm-driven feed platform, began displaying the location of users’ profit pages on April 15.
  • Weibo announced that it would display all users’ locations (in Chinese) based on IP address on April 28. The Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin, also began showings the user’s’ IP locations on April 29.
  • On April 30, Quora-like Zhihu also rolled out a similar feature to display location information (in Chinese) in all new replies, aiming to maintain a “healthy and clear community.”

Ward Zhou is a tech reporter based in Shanghai. He covers stories about industry of digital content, hardware, and anything geek. Reach him via ward.zhou[a]technode.com or Twitter @zhounanyu.