An Ethics Case Study
As CNBC recently reported, China is on its way to developing a “social credit score” that would be applied to every one of its citizens. Several pilot programs have already been implemented, and a single nation-wide program is scheduled to begin in 2020:
Part financial credibility indicator and part compliance mechanism, the social credit system aims to generate a score for individuals and institutions in China based on data like tax filings and driving demerits. And while consumers may reap rewards, the score also functions as a signal mechanism for authorities about whom or what deserves to be penalized.
Eight private companies have been approved to test social credit score systems—including a subsidiary of Alibaba. They compile information from various sources in order to assign citizens a score. Alibaba’s Sesame Credit uses what it describes as a "complex algorithm" to do that; in a statement to the BBC, the company however rejected “persistent rumours that the organization monitors users' social media activity when assessing their social credit.” (Many companies outside of China have incorporated the use of social media data in decision about extending credit. More recently, however, the usefulness of such data in credit determinations has been questioned.)
The CNBC article describes both current benefits arising from the implementation of the Chinese social credit score systems (such as waivers of security deposits for various rentals) and potential future drawbacks related to privacy and social control. Its author adds that
[i]n spite of the ongoing debate concerning data privacy, netizens in China appear to have taken the system's kinks in stride. A scan of Chinese social media site Weibo reflected that the most popular discussions about Sesame Credit involved people brainstorming how scores could be used to improve a shared bicycle scheme.
Last October, however, a Washington Post article about the social credit rating quoted a Chinese novelist calling it “like Big Brother”; the article went on to explain that the writer’s criticism of the government
won him millions of followers on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, until the censors swung into action. He fears the new social credit plan could bring more problems for those who dare to speak out. “My social-media account has been canceled many times, so the government can say I am a dishonest person,” he said. “Then I can’t go abroad and can’t take the train.”
In response to the Washington Post piece, an op-ed in the Chinese newspaper The Global Times argued that the social credit system “won’t be Orwellian”; it pointed out that the system is still a work in progress, and that lessons are being learned from the pilot projects: for example, that people’s political opinions should not be included in the scoring. “The range of the system must be meticulously restricted,” the article said, “and it should only stay effective in people's economic life and part of their social life where laws and principles are clearly defined and widely recognized.”
However, the Chinese government’s Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System, issued in 2014 and comprehensive it its scope, includes the following provision:
Establish online credit black list systems, list enterprises and individuals engaging in online swindles, rumourmongering, infringement of other persons’ lawful rights and interests and other grave acts of breaking trust online onto black lists, adopt measures against subjects listed on black lists including limitation of online conduct and barring sectoral access, and report them to corresponding departments for publication and exposure.
The Planning Outline and other related documents speak of the need to establish “a sincerity culture” and argue that the social credit score system would be “an effective method to strengthen social sincerity, stimulate mutual trust in society, and reducing [sic] social contradictions…”
- Would such a social credit scoring system be ethical? Why, or why not?
- How might such a system impact the common good? How might it impact individual rights?
- What impact might it have on citizens’ virtue?
- Is the proposed Chinese social credit system different than credit scoring systems in the US? If so, how?
- Could China’s system be made more ethical by the establishment of certain clarifications and limits, as the Global Times article suggests?
- What kind of information (if any) should be kept out of such a system?
- What (if any) kind of information should be kept out of the credit rating system in the U.S.?