What’s your social media credit score? Silicon Valley, like China, is watching

by WorldTribune Staff, August 26, 2019

Communist China has instituted a social credit system in which the country’s residents receive negative scores for such things as supporting the Falun Gong or Tibetan Buddhism, criticizing the government, and smoking or playing loud music on trains.

Running afoul of the social credit system can lead to harsh punishment including bans on leaving the country, slower Internet connections and being included on a public blacklist.

‘In the future, law enforcement may be determined less by the Constitution and legal code, and more by end-user license agreements.’ / Creative Commons / CC BY 2.0

Is such a thing possible in the democracy-loving United States?

According to an Aug. 26 report by Fast Company, it is not only possible but is already beginning to emerge in the form of what is  in effect a social media credit score.

“If current trends hold, it’s possible that in the future a majority of misdemeanors and even some felonies will be punished not by Washington, D.C., but by Silicon Valley. It’s a slippery slope away from democracy and toward corporatocracy,” the report said.

“In other words, in the future, law enforcement may be determined less by the Constitution and legal code, and more by end-user license agreements.”

The communist government in China maintains two nationwide lists — the blacklist and the red list. The blacklist includes people who have committed infractions according to the system. The red list is for people who have stayed out of trouble. The 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,” the Fast Company report noted.

“Public shaming is also part of China’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.”

Social credit systems “are an end-run around the pesky complications of the legal system,” the report said. “Unlike China’s government policy, the social credit system emerging in the U.S. is enforced by private companies. If the public objects to how these laws are enforced, it can’t elect new rule-makers.”

The report continued: “An increasing number of societal ‘privileges’ related to transportation, accommodations, communications, and the rates we pay for services (like insurance) are either controlled by technology companies or affected by how we use technology services. And Silicon Valley’s rules for being allowed to use their services are getting stricter.

The report cited the example of Airbnb — a major provider of travel accommodation and tourist activities which says it has more than 6 million listings in its system.

“Airbnb can disable your account for life for any reason it chooses, and it reserves the right to not tell you the reason,” Fast Company noted. “The company’s canned message includes the assertion that ‘This 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.’ The ban can be based on something the host privately tells Airbnb about something they believe you did while staying at their property. Airbnb’s competitors have similar policies.”

“A ban from Airbnb can limit travel options,” Fast Company noted.

Uber, too, has made it easier to ban its ride-share customers, the report said.

“Whenever you get out of the car after an Uber ride, the app invites you to rate the driver. What many passengers don’t know is that the driver now also gets an invitation to rate you,” Fast Company noted. “Under a new policy announced in May: If your average rating is ‘significantly below average,’ Uber will ban you from the service.”

The New York State Department of Financial Services, in a move earlier this year, ruled that life insurance companies can base premiums on what they find in customers’ 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,” Fast Company noted. “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 kind — they can’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 ‘no,’ but then posting pictures of yourself free-soloing El Capitan, could count as a ‘yes.’ ”

So, Fast Company asked, “What’s wrong with using new technology to encourage everyone to behave? The most disturbing attribute of a social credit system is not that it’s invasive, but that it’s extralegal. Crimes are punished outside the legal system, which means no presumption of innocence, no legal representation, no judge, no jury, and often no appeal. In other words, it’s an alternative legal system where the accused have fewer rights.”


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