Fast Company notes that Red China’s social credit system is quietly being emulated in Western societies by tech companies, acting on the basis of their own political prejudices and entirely on their own authority.
Have you heard about Chinaâ€™s social credit system? Itâ€™s a technology-enabled, surveillance-based nationwide program designed to nudge citizens toward better behavior. The ultimate goal is to â€œallow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step,â€ according to the Chinese government.
In place since 2014, the social credit system is a work in progress that could evolve by next year into a single, nationwide point system for all Chinese citizens, akin to a financial credit score. It aims to punish for transgressions that can include membership in or support for the Falun Gong or Tibetan Buddhism, failure to pay debts, excessive video gaming, criticizing the government, late payments, failing to sweep the sidewalk in front of your store or house, smoking or playing loud music on trains, jaywalking, and other actions deemed illegal or unacceptable by the Chinese government.
It can also award points for charitable donations or even taking oneâ€™s own parents to the doctor.
Punishments can be harsh, including bans on leaving the country, using public transportation, checking into hotels, hiring for high-visibility jobs, or acceptance of children to private schools. It can also result in slower internet connections and social stigmatization in the form of registration on a public blacklist.
Chinaâ€™s social credit system has been characterized in one pithy tweet as â€œauthoritarianism, gamified.â€
At present, some parts of the social credit system are in force nationwide and others are local and limited (there are 40 or so pilot projects operated by local governments and at least six run by tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent).
Beijing maintains two nationwide lists, called the blacklist and the red listâ€”the former consisting of people who have transgressed, and the latter people who have stayed out of trouble (a â€œred listâ€ is the Communist version of a white list.) These lists are publicly searchable on a government website called China Credit.
The Chinese government also shares lists with technology platforms. So, for example, if someone criticizes the government on Weibo, their kids might be ineligible for acceptance to an elite school.
Public shaming is also part of Chinaâ€™s social credit system. Pictures of blacklisted people in one city were shown between videos on TikTok in a trial, and the addresses of blacklisted citizens were shown on a map on WeChat.
Some Western press reports imply that the Chinese populace is suffocating in a nationwide Skinner box of oppressive behavioral modification. But some Chinese are unaware that it even exists. And many others actually like the idea. One survey found that 80% of Chinese citizens surveyed either somewhat or strongly approve of social credit system.
Many Westerners are disturbed by what they read about Chinaâ€™s social credit system. But such systems, it turns out, are not unique to China. A parallel system is developing in the United States, in part as the result of Silicon Valley and technology-industry user policies, and in part by surveillance of social media activity by private companies.
Here are some of the elements of Americaâ€™s growing social credit system.
The New York State Department of Financial Services announced earlier this year that life insurance companies can base premiums on what they find in your social media posts. That Instagram pic showing you teasing a grizzly bear at Yellowstone with a martini in one hand, a bucket of cheese fries in the other, and a cigarette in your mouth, could cost you. On the other hand, a Facebook post showing you doing yoga might save you money. (Insurance companies have to demonstrate that social media evidence points to risk, and not be based on discrimination of any kindâ€”they canâ€™t use social posts to alter premiums based on race or disability, for example.)
The use of social media is an extension of the lifestyle questions typically asked when applying for life insurance, such as questions about whether you engage in rock climbing or other adventure sports. Saying â€œno,â€ but then posting pictures of yourself free-soloing El Capitan, could count as a â€œyes.â€
A company called PatronScan sells three productsâ€”kiosk, desktop, and handheld systemsâ€”designed to help bar and restaurant owners manage customers. PatronScan is a subsidiary of the Canadian software company Servall Biometrics, and its products are now on sale in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
PatronScan helps spot fake IDsâ€”and troublemakers. When customers arrive at a PatronScan-using bar, their ID is scanned. The company maintains a list of objectionable customers designed to protect venues from people previously removed for â€œfighting, sexual assault, drugs, theft, and other bad behavior,â€ according to its website. A â€œpublicâ€ list is shared among all PatronScan customers. So someone whoâ€™s banned by one bar in the U.S. is potentially banned by all the bars in the U.S., the U.K., and Canada that use the PatronScan system for up to a year. (PatronScan Australia keeps a separate system.)
Judgment about what kind of behavior qualifies for inclusion on a PatronScan list is up to the bar owners and managers. Individual bar owners can ignore the ban, if they like. Data on non-offending customers is deleted in 90 days or less. Also: PatronScan enables bars to keep a â€œprivateâ€ list that is not shared with other bars, but on which bad customers can be kept for up to five years.
PatronScan does have an â€œappealsâ€ process, but itâ€™s up to the company to grant or deny those appeals.
Thanks to the sharing economy, the options for travel have been extended far beyond taxis and hotels. Uber and Airbnb are leaders in providing transportation and accommodation for travelers. But there are many similar ride-sharing and peer-to-peer accommodations companies providing similar services.
Airbnbâ€”a major provider of travel accommodation and tourist activitiesâ€”bragged in March that it now has more than 6 million listings in its system. Thatâ€™s why a ban from Airbnb can limit travel options.
Airbnb can disable your account for life for any reason it chooses, and it reserves the right to not tell you the reason. The companyâ€™s canned message includes the assertion that â€œThis decision is irreversible and will affect any duplicated or future accounts. Please understand that we are not obligated to provide an explanation for the action taken against your account.â€ The ban can be based on something the host privately tells Airbnb about something they believe you did while staying at their property. Airbnbâ€™s competitors have similar policies.
Itâ€™s now easy to get banned by Uber, too. Whenever you get out of the car after an Uber ride, the app invites you to rate the driver. What many passengers donâ€™t know is that the driver now also gets an invitation to rate you. Under a new policy announced in May: If your average rating is â€œsignificantly below average,â€ Uber will ban you from the service.
You can be banned from communications apps, too. For example, you can be banned on WhatsApp if too many other users block you. You can also get banned for sending spam, threatening messages, trying to hack or reverse-engineer the WhatsApp app, or using the service with an unauthorized app.
WhatsApp is small potatoes in the United States. But in much of the world, itâ€™s the main form of electronic communication. Not being allowed to use WhatsApp in some countries is as punishing as not being allowed to use the telephone system in America.
This article fails to note the censorship and deplatforming regimes quite thoroughly already in place in giant social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, or the censorship of conservative speech by Google, or the removal of firearms videos by YouTube, or the denial of banking services to firearms dealers by a number of big banks. In the West, we get soft authoritarianism via Capitalism.
GoodThink. WrongThink. Start ’em when their young.
That a business can keep track of “problem” customers doesn’t fundamentally shock me. I do see certain problems with modern communications/social media somewhat abruptly turning a huge world into a small town — Not only can the proprietor of the saloon or general store decide you’re too much trouble to want as a customer, rumors can circulate about you with minimal opportunity for correction. But unlike low-tech small towns, you can’t really move on to the next one, or to the Big City, to make a fresh start.
Still, I think there’s an enormous distance between having sanctimonious neighbors and business owners sneering at and shunning you, and the Chinese/authoritarian model where the government (armed force and all) sanctions and embraces such things. As distressing as “soft authoritarianism via Capitalism” may be, there are mechanisms (competition, underserved markets inviting new service providers, etc.) to circumvent it. It’s only government, whether independently or in cooperation with plutocrats, that closes the door on self-help.
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