Can big data replace free speech? China is keen to try

china big data digital surveillance
Image credit: Wit Olszewski

From time to time Disruptive.Asia posts stories about China’s increasing use of digital technologies like big data, AI and facial recognition to create a digital panopticon state of sorts. But it’s not just about spying on citizens to weed out criminals and political dissidents – according to this article in MIT Technology Review, it’s also an experiment that hopes to solve a key problem with totalitarian governments: making sure the government is serving the people’s needs without allowing them the freedom to actually express what those needs are.

One of the many rationales for free speech in many democracies is so people can tell the government what they want it to do for them – and to hear their complaints when government is doing it wrong or not meeting their needs or expectations, all of which is meant to establish an element of trust and (ideally) forestall a riot or a coup de tat. As the Technology Review article points out, China’s central government also need its citizens to trust them to maintain its grip on power, which also means understanding what their citizens need – but this raises a dilemma:

How do you effectively govern a country that’s home to one in five people on the planet, with an increasingly complex economy and society, if you don’t allow public debate, civil activism, and electoral feedback? How do you gather enough information to actually make decisions? And how does a government that doesn’t invite its citizens to participate still engender trust and bend public behavior without putting police on every doorstep?

For President Xi Jinping, the answer appears to lie in combining big data and AI to create a digital surveillance regime that can effectively harvest that information in granular detail, and use that data in lieu of free speech or petitions to govern more effectively:

As far as we know, there is no single master blueprint linking technology and governance in China. But there are several initiatives that share a common strategy of harvesting data about people and companies to inform decision-making and create systems of incentives and punishments to influence behavior. These initiatives include the State Council’s 2014 “Social Credit System,” the 2016 Cybersecurity Law, various local-level and private-enterprise experiments in “social credit,” “smart city” plans, and technology-driven policing in the western region of Xinjiang.

It’s an interesting and disruptive idea – and perhaps a frightening one, if only because (1) thanks to Google and Facebook, we know full well the power of big data and digital surveillance to create massive profiles of users that contain virtually every aspect of our daily lives – what we read, write, watch, tweet, buy, sell, and where we are at the time we do any of these things, and (2) we also know that more democratic governments are already harnessing the same technologies to a degree and are keen to use them for everything from fighting crime to developing efficient smart-city/e-government services.

Now we’re seeing growing concern over false information and fake news sewing discord and division with occasionally deadly consequences, not to mention more authoritarian-leaning leaders using the “fake news” trend to brand all negative coverage of them as manufactured witch hunts – it’s not hard to imagine such leaders looking at China’s experiment and thinking “Hmmmmmmmmmmm …”

That said, the TR article does point out one major problem with relying on big data rather than speech to govern the masses effectively: the accuracy and integrity of the data:

One of the biggest concerns is that because China lacks an independent judiciary, citizens have no recourse for disputing false or inaccurate allegations …

The opacity of the system makes it difficult to evaluate how effective experiments like Rongcheng’s [social credit scores] are. The party has squeezed out almost all critical voices since 2012, and the risks of challenging the system – even in relatively small ways – have grown. What information is available is deeply flawed; systematic falsification of data on everything from GDP growth to hydropower use pervades Chinese government statistics.

The technical term for this, I believe, is “garbage in/garbage out”. And it’s hard to imagine how China or any other authoritarian regime could use big data to discern the people’s wishes and needs with a closed, opaque system that’s all too vulnerable to bad data. Potentially that could be fixed with a fully transparent process that ordinary people could vet, but that’s probably the last thing Beijing wants. And, you know, even Google and Facebook don’t do transparency at that level – why would Beijing?

That said, I can’t imagine Beijing would let a detail like this stop them from trying. If they fail to discern the concerns of the people via big data, they’ll still have a centrally controlled digital media ecosystem to push their own rosy narrative and a massive digital surveillance machine to and deal with the dissenters and complainers – both of which will serve as a model for every authoritarian wannabe on the planet.

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