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China has turned the internet into a tool of complete citizen control


February 13, 2018   4 mins

There was something distressingly appropriate in the untimely death earlier this month of internet pioneer John Perry Barlow. The Grateful Dead lyricist gained iconic stature in the early days of the internet as author of the ringing Declaration of Cyberspace Independence, and inspired a generation of liberty-focused digital visionaries. He has passed on just as the entire enterprise is in danger of turning turtle.

We should hardly be surprised that it is China, the would-be global hegemon, that’s threatening to crush the last petals of digital flower power. The People’s Republic is working on the most comprehensive project for social control that has ever been devised.

If trust is broken in one place, restrictions are imposed everywhere
Some of the components in their scheme are familiar: We’re used to financial credit ratings. We’re used to writing online reviews and awarding stars – from restaurant reviews on Yelp to the more formal AirBnb and Uber reviews that are the basis for trust in the gig economy.  We’re used to the more controversial efforts of companies, such as Klout and Kred, to assess our media “street cred” and give it a single number. And we’re getting used to being watched. Though, not to the Chinese extent, where the police are using eyewear to scan everyone they come across using facial recognition technology.

The Beijing project combines the business reviewing (credit ratings) and peer reviewing (AirBnb) to create the ultimate Klout score: a measure of the trustworthiness so beloved of the Chinese Communist Party. This information is then immediately accessible upon the scanning of someone’s face. Welcome to the Social Credit System: “basically a big data gamified version of the Communist Party’s surveillance methods”1.

The original plan for the “Social Credit” project goes back to 2014, when it was laid out in a document approved by the Chinese State Council. Despite some delays, after an initial period of voluntary participation, a full – and compulsory – rollout is planned for 2020.

The project is brilliantly simple – and singularly sinister.

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’
“If trust is broken in one place, restrictions are imposed everywhere,” states the document. In other words, people need to be completely “trustworthy” – from the point of view of the government – or every aspect of their activities becomes open to interference. Fair Isaac, the U.S. company that awards the key financial credit scores, knows that if you miss a mortgage payment you may not be the best person to be handed a new high-value credit card. But the Chinese State Council takes this principle far further.

Any one thing of which they disapprove will have an impact in every other area of your life.

This from Rachel Botsman’s book Who Can You Trust?

… 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…. 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’.

It is happening already:

In February 2017, the country’s Supreme People’s Court announced that 6.15 million of its citizens had been banned from taking flights over the past four years for social misdeeds…. Another 1.65 million blacklisted people cannot take trains.

As The Conversation reports:

Being a “good citizen” is well rewarded. In some regions, citizens with high social credit scores can enjoy free gym facilitiescheaper public transportand shorter wait times in hospitals. Those with low scores, on the other hand, may face restrictions to their travel and public service access2.

And here’s an update from Rodion Ebbighausen on the German website Die Welt:  

People who don’t visit their aging parents regularly, for example, will get minus points. The same goes for people who cross the street on a red light or illegally dump their garbage3.

If you watched the Nosedive episode of the Netflix sci-fi series Black Mirror, this may sound familiar. Though while the Nosedive set-up is nowhere near as comprehensive (or as threatening) as the Chinese project, the core idea is the same: peer evaluations in real time assign significance to everyone.

China may only be the start. As the article in Die Welt notes, China may now export their system to other (repressive) regimes around the world.

It could hardly be more different from the vision of the early internet pioneers, as captured by John Perry Barlow in his 1996 manifesto:

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

  1.  Rachel Botsman, Wired, October 21, 2017, “Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens.” Adapted from her book, Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart (Penguin Portfolio, 2017)
  2.  “China’s Social Credit System puts its people under pressure to be model citizen”, The Conversation, January 21, 2018
  3.  Rodion Ebbighausen, “China experiments with sweeping Social Credit System,” Die Welt, January 4, 2018

Nigel Cameron writes about technology, society, and the future. In 2007 he founded the Washington think tank The Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. His most recent book is Will Robots Take Your Job?


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