China Invests In Social Credit System That Ranks Citizen Trustworthiness, Could End Up Splitting The Internet In The Next Decade

The government of China is in the process of implementing a “social credit” system, where individuals will receive a trust score and receive or lose privileges as their score rises or falls. The project has come online in stages and is expected to be running at full steam by 2020. The social credit system is enabled by a massive surveillance network (including around 200 million CCTV cameras) spread throughout the country, and the data collected will be used to assign a trust score not only individual citizens but also to corporations and entities.

The social credit system is based around the “gamification of trust”, a method of assigning points to social concepts like trustworthiness and credibility. While the Chinese government argues the system will enable trustworthy citizens to operate freely and securely and the discredited will find it hard to “take a single step”, others are disturbed by the use of surveillance systems and the accompanying assignment of “social points” that would pressure citizens to act in certain government-approved ways.

Algorithmic Governance And Constant Surveillance

The social credit system has been called “consumer tracking with an Orwellian political twist”, and “dystopian” in nature. Alarms over the system include the extent to which Chinese citizens will be monitored. Apparently even the most minute actions can earn or cost an individual social points, and the scope of the surveillance includes examining people’s online posts and even what books they are reading.

The Chinese government has a history of punishing and scrutinizing citizens who voice criticisms of the government but only recently has the technology to track individual citizens throughout their day become available for wide-spread implementation. Both third-party investigators and official Chinese social credit system documents reveal that the system is designed to collect extensive data on the political beliefs, consumer habits, travel behavior, internet comments, and social relationships of individuals.

Positive actions, such as properly recycling and paying bills on time get citizens benefits like cheaper public transportation, but other perks can have a greater impact, such as shorter wait times for hospital services. Punitive actions for those caught breaking social norms, like smoking outside of a designated smoking area makes it more difficult to get beneficial services like transportation. The aim of the program is “algorithmic governance” and the government of China is reportedly working with many different companies to see who can provide them with the best data collection and analysis algorithms.

The Effects Of Social Punishments

The effects of the social credit system could have severe impacts on a person’s life and welfare, according to Liu Hu, an investigative journalist who says the system has essentially destroyed his career. Hu made accusations of corruption against government officials and as a result was hit with a “dishonest” label that meant he could no longer travel by rail and he also lost access to his social media accounts, making it impossible for him to do his job. Hu is far from the only person to see punitive actions from the system, however. Reportedly, over 9 million people have already been barred from purchasing plane tickets since the program was first introduced in 2014.

While participating in the social credit system is currently voluntary (though early adopters get perks), participation will be mandatory by 2020.
Hu worries that Chinese citizens aren’t cognizant of how the punishments doled out by the system could end up impacting them, saying that when it comes to these sorts of programs their “eyes are blinded and their ears are blocked.

As mentioned, individual citizens aren’t the only ones being tracked by the social credit system, companies within China are also being assigned trustworthiness scores. Companies outside of the country have also had their own scores and profiles created for the system, and the pressure put on these international organizations/companies by the system has stoked fears that the system could “interfere directly in the sovereignty of other nations“. While companies from other countries may find the system distasteful, they have no choice but to acquiesce to the system if they want to keep doing business within China.

Two Different Internets?

One of the biggest questions about the social credit system is how China will be able to ensure their citizens act in ways deemed appropriate as the world becomes increasingly globalized, competitive, and connected. Furthermore, what repercussions will this system have on the world at large? Will the Chinese government step up monitoring of their citizen’s internet usage/place tighter restrictions on internet usage, and if so how will it impact other countries in the world?

Some believe that the internet as a whole is heading for a large split in the next decade, with one portion lead by the United States and the other portion lead by China. In an interview with CNBC, former CEO of Google and Executive Chairman of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) Eric Schmidt says that the bifurcation of the internet is a real possibility. When Schmidt was asked about the possibility of the internet dividing into different fragments over the next couple of decades, Schmidt responded:

I think the most likely scenario now is not a splintering, but rather a bifurcation into a Chinese-led internet and a non-Chinese internet led by America.

Schmidt explained that China has a heavily invested into their internet infrastructure, which now accounts for a greater percentage of China’s GDP than the percentage of the US’ GDP that America’s internet accounts for. Schmidt explains that while China is likely to produce “fantastic leadership in products and services”, they have a great interest in controlling the commerce and communication that happens within their corner of the internet, and that there is a significant danger that more services/products will come from “a different leadership regime from government, with censorship, controls, etc.”

Google has long been out of the Chinese market and is contemplating returning to the country. The company has recently drawn criticism for, under the leadership of current CEO Sundar Pichai, displaying a perceived willingness to acquiesce to Chinese censorship policies. Recently, a group of six US senators from across both major parties created a letter to Pichai noting China’s human rights violations and heavy surveillance. China has been rated amongst the worst countries in the world for internet freedom, according to the organization Freedom House, which tracks internet freedom across the globe. Google employees have also protested the decision, asking for more transparency and saying that the current desire to return to the Chinese market should take stock of “urgent moral and ethical issues”.

If Schmidt is right in his predictions, an alternative internet lead by China where everyone is assigned a social credit score may be more plausible than many think. It remains to be seen how China will balance a desire for control over information with the access to the internet that remains so crucial to staying competitive in a global marketplace, but having its own internet may make things easier.