When it comes to bashing countries for poor internet freedom practices, China usually appears near the top of the list – and with good reason. Perhaps in part that’s because, in contrast with more crude filtering systems adopted in many authoritarian states, the Great Firewall is an almost elegant panopticon. The sheer level of surveillance – and capacities for intervening – can look like an early draft of a Black Mirror episode. Take, for example, the ability to effectively remove images deemed unsuitable for the interests of the state ‘mid-air’. Where the Soviets had to make do with erasing people after the fact, Chinese internet censors can do so on a real-time basis.
Sesame Credit seems, in a sense, to be the obvious outcome of this level of monitoring and capacity for intervention. The so-called ‘social credit’ is opaque in its operation, but from what we understand, citizens will be able to ‘earn’ credits by such patriotic activities as pro-government posts on message boards. A higher score will mean greater perks, incentivising citizens to behave as suits the Communist Party of China.
There is something thoroughly Chinese about this – and not in a negative way. In e-commerce, the country outstrips its competitors with home-grown giants like Alibaba. Granted, they have been grown in a sort of incubator, with Western competitors artificially kept out, but they have achieved success on a scale which surely makes even Facebook or Google jealous. The ease of access to functions through all-in-one apps like WeChat is another example of an approach to the internet with a great number of affordances. On the more positive side, the use of something like Sesame Credit shows a continuing move away from paper money. This was the goal of China’s almost as populous neighbour to the West, through the process of demonetisation. Yet India has largely failed in its bid to go digital: in spite of the number of new digital bank accounts created, the majority (owned by the urban poor) are empty, and the rural poor (with no access to the internet) never had them to start with.
This cannot detract from the cost in terms of citizens’ rights to privacy, or freedom of expression. It also opens up a number of worrying scenarios in which a users social credit could be lowered. A drunken error or a joke made at the expense of the government on a relative’s account, for example, might have an impact; more concerningly, a malicious actor could effectively fabricate dissent. There is also the question of automation . How well can the system deal with bots set up to pump out pro-government posts? Will it lead to inflation (at least temporarily, before accounts are presumably removed)? The lack of adequate information on this front makes this largely guesswork, sadly.
Will social credit in the style of Sesame Credit spread from China, is the final question. Many have pointed to pre-existing systems, like the credit scores which are prevalent across the West – and they have a point. Much like Sesame Credit, when it’s rolled out, they can have immense impacts on our lives and are by no means transparent. And yet largely speaking, our behaviour on Facebook or Twitter has no major bearing on these (we hope). The age of the all-in-one app is yet to hit us – but when it does, there’s no reason to assume that social credit would not be its outcome.