China’s Social Credit System Sounds Orwellian, And Like An Extension Of Current Facebook Censorship

Recent reports on China’s  social credit system sound Orwellian, or like something out of Black Mirror. The Verge summarized how the system works:

Starting in May, Chinese citizens who rank low on the country’s burgeoning “social credit” system will be in danger of being banned from buying plane or train tickets for up to a year, according to statements recently released by the country’s National Development and Reform Commission.

With the social credit system, the Chinese government rates citizens based on things like criminal behavior and financial misdeeds, but also on what they buy, say, and do. Those with low “scores” have to deal with penalties and restrictions. China has been working towards rolling out a full version of the system by 2020, but some early versions of it are already in place.

Previously, the Chinese government had focused on restricting the travel of people with massive amounts of debt, like LeEco and Faraday Future founder Jia Yueting, who made the Supreme People’s Court blacklist late last year.

The new travel restrictions are the latest addition to this growing patchwork of social engineering, which has already imposed punishments on more than seven million citizens. And there’s a broad range when it comes to who can be flagged. Citizens who have spread “false information about terrorism,” caused “trouble” on flights, used expired tickets, or were caught smoking on trains could all be banned, according to Reuters.

But the system, as it stands, is opaque; citizens are seemingly just as likely to be flagged for minor infractions like leaving bikes parked in a footpath or issuing apologies that are deemed “insincere” as major credit defaulters like Jia. And it’s often unclear whether they’re on a blacklist in the first place, let alone what kind of recourse is available. “Chinese government authorities clearly hope to create a reality in which bureaucratic pettiness could significantly limit people’s rights,” Maya Wang, senior researcher for the non-profit NGO Human Rights Watch, wrote in December.

Wired has further information on how the system works:

Individuals on Sesame Credit are measured by a score ranging between 350 and 950 points. Alibaba does not divulge the “complex algorithm” it uses to calculate the number but they do reveal the five factors taken into account. The first is credit history. For example, does the citizen pay their electricity or phone bill on time? Next is fulfilment capacity, which it defines in its guidelines as “a user’s ability to fulfil his/her contract obligations”. The third factor is personal characteristics, verifying personal information such as someone’s mobile phone number and address. But the fourth category, behaviour and preference, is where it gets interesting.

Under this system, something as innocuous as a person’s shopping habits become a measure of character. Alibaba admits it judges people by the types of products they buy. “Someone who plays video games for ten hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person,” says Li Yingyun, Sesame’s Technology Director. “Someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility.” So the system not only investigates behaviour – it shapes it. It “nudges” citizens away from purchases and behaviours the government does not like.

Friends matter, too. The fifth category is interpersonal relationships. What does their choice of online friends and their interactions say about the person being assessed? Sharing what Sesame Credit refers to as “positive energy” online, nice messages about the government or how well the country’s economy is doing, will make your score go up…

Posting dissenting political opinions or links mentioning Tiananmen Square has never been wise in China, but now it could directly hurt a citizen’s rating. But here’s the real kicker: a person’s own score will also be affected by what their online friends say and do, beyond their own contact with them. If someone they are connected to online posts a negative comment, their own score will also be dragged down…

…people with low ratings will have slower internet speeds; restricted access to restaurants, nightclubs or golf courses; and the removal of the right to travel freely abroad with, I quote, “restrictive control on consumption within holiday areas or travel businesses”. Scores will influence a person’s rental applications, their ability to get insurance or a loan and even social-security benefits. Citizens with low scores will not be hired by certain employers and will be forbidden from obtaining some jobs, including in the civil service, journalism and legal fields, where of course you must be deemed trustworthy. Low-rating citizens will also be restricted when it comes to enrolling themselves or their children in high-paying private schools. I am not fabricating this list of punishments. It’s the reality Chinese citizens will face. As the government document states, the social credit system will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”.

This sounds a  lot like what was depicted on an episode of The Orville entitled Majority Rule.

The system is voluntary now and becomes mandatory in 2020. Wired suggests that people are signing up now out of fear of reprisals if they do not, and as high scores can be a status symbol:

Higher scores have already become a status symbol, with almost 100,000 people bragging about their scores on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) within months of launch. A citizen’s score can even affect their odds of getting a date, or a marriage partner, because the higher their Sesame rating, the more prominent their dating profile is on Baihe.

Sesame Credit already offers tips to help individuals improve their ranking, including warning about the downsides of friending someone who has a low score. This might lead to the rise of score advisers, who will share tips on how to gain points, or reputation consultants willing to offer expert advice on how to strategically improve a ranking or get off the trust-breaking blacklist.

Wired compares this to “a big data gamified version of the Communist Party’s surveillance methods.” People are also likely to seek ways around the system:

We’re also bound to see the birth of reputation black markets selling under-the-counter ways to boost trustworthiness. In the same way that Facebook Likes and Twitter followers can be bought, individuals will pay to manipulate their score. What about keeping the system secure? Hackers (some even state-backed) could change or steal the digitally stored information…

In China, certain citizens, such as government officials, will likely be deemed above the system. What will be the public reaction when their unfavourable actions don’t affect their score? We could see a Panama Papers 3.0 for reputation fraud.

While this sounds absolutely Orwellian, businesses here are regularly rated on line, and their success can be affected by the whims of anonymous reviewers.

While we do not face restrictions as severe as those described in China, this is also analogous to the current censorship we are facing on Facebook. While the internet can increase opportunities for free expression when anyone can write from their own web page,  increasingly communication is being channeled through limited sources. Facebook has become indispensable for communicating, now with over two billion active users worldwide. Facebook will often cite violation of Community Standards to justify restricting individuals, but quite often there is no evidence of violating any of the Community Standards actually posted by Facebook, and no response to appeals. This has led many people to start using social media sites including MeWe, Steemit, Minds, and Tremr. Unfortunately it is far harder for Chinese to change where they live to avoid repression based upon unclear standards than it is to use alternative social media sites here.

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