A Chinese-Style Digital Dystopia Isn’t As Far Away As We Think

A handful of giant companies are centralizing control of the internet, and our courts and government are going along with it.

By Matt Stoller and cross-posted from Buzz Feed

Chinese journalist Liu Hu always knew he’d have trouble with the authorities; he had been exposing corruption and wrongdoing for years. He was used to being hassled with regular fines and forced apologies imposed by his authoritarian government. He nevertheless persisted in truth-telling.

One day in 2017, Hu logged onto a travel site, but couldn’t book a flight because the site said he was “not qualified.” Soon he discovered he was blocked from buying property, using the high-speed train network, or getting a loan. And there was nothing he could do about it. His rights to essential goods and services were now circumscribed through an algorithm designed to discriminate against the 7.5 million people on China’s “Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement” list.

Welcome to the Chinese “social credit score” system, whose goal is to rank China’s 1.4 billion people. Conceptually, it is not that different from a financial credit score in the US. But the social credit score includes things like political outspokenness, shopping habits, friends, travel habits, and anything the authorities want to encourage or discourage. This score then fine-tunes your access to essential social goods based on a discriminatory algorithm.

Such a nightmarish system could never, of course, happen in the United States. Or could it? Three recent decisions in Washington suggest it is not as far-fetched as we might imagine, with both our courts and our government effectively endorsing the way a handful of giant companies are centralizing control over our society

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