BW: You have been making the case better than anyone else that, despite the fact that we live in a liberal democracy with a Bill of Rights and a Constitution and a First Amendment, whether most Americans are aware of it or not we also are living inside a soft version of a social credit system. So for the people who hear that and think: ‘That’s ridiculous. This isn’t China.’ I want you to make the case.
DS: Let’s start by defining what a social credit system is. A social credit system is a system that pretends to give you civil liberties and freedom. It doesn’t overtly send you to the gulag for expressing dissent. Rather, it conditions the benefits of society—economic benefits, the ability to spend your money—on having the correct opinions. If you don’t, then your ability to participate in online platforms is diminished or curtailed entirely. That’s the situation that we are gradually heading towards…
I’m not the one who’s changed. Big Tech changed. I didn’t leave Big Tech. Big Tech left me.Bari Weiss, “How Big Tech Is Strangling Your Freedom” at Common Sense (March 29, 2022)
His story is sobering: “The pressure comes from both above and below. You’ve got the United States Senate basically saying: ‘Nice little social network you got there. Real shame for anything to happen to it.’… From below, you’ve got the employees and the tweet mobs and basically forming these boycotts and subjecting the management of the company to pressure. It would take a very strong leader to stand up to these pressures. And corporate executives tend not to have a tremendous amount of spine to begin with.” Take a minute and read the rest.
Here’s a quick rundown on ways Big Tech can limit our freedoms using the technology we have come to depend on:
➤ Debanking: The bank simply cancels your account and/or your credit card or seizes it on behalf of the government, leaving you financially helpless. Crypto is not a solution. As Jonathan Bartlett explains, “most people, even crypto miners, don’t do their ordinary transactions directly on the blockchain, but rather through exchanges such as Coinbase, Kucoin, crypto.com, Etoro, and others. These institutions can be easily regulated and directed just like banks, and offer none of the protections that are at least theoretically available when accessing the blockchain directly.”
➤ Debuying: Former PayPal COO David Sacks recently sounded the alarm about the way big fintechs (financial services tech companies) like PayPal limit the freedom of users to dissent from state policy: “Now PayPal has gone much further, creating the economic equivalent of the No-Fly List with the ADL’s assistance. If history is any guide, other fintech companies will soon follow suit. As we saw in the case of speech restrictions, the political monoculture that prevails among employees of these companies will create pressure for all of them to act as a bloc.” As Jonathan Bartlett notes, “Dollar bills never complain about who they are coming from or who they are going to. However, the increased digitalization of our society means that every interaction winds up being actively mediated by other organizations.” Increasingly, preventing disapproved protesters against government policy from buying or selling appears, among the big fintechs, to be a righteous cause.
➤ Depublishing: Issues around the right to read various types of literature change significantly when publishers give in to pressure to “depublish” works they accepted that later become controversial. Essentially, the industry has changed: Books could be withdrawn by their publishers due to the author’s private behavior, unrelated to the knowledge value of the work (Bill Bailey on Philip Roth), or disputed political issues (unverified claims re Josh Hawley and the Capitol Riot), or politically incorrect defense of traditional ideas about biological sex (Abigail Shrier). In all cases, the publishing industry, which used to be in the vanguard of your right to read, is now much more comfortable with limiting it, to further social values it deems appropriate. One reason, as noted earlier, is that it’s relatively easier than ever before in history to find out what we want to know via skilled internet searches. Publishers then seek to curry favor with important entities by censoring disfavored sources.
➤ Purchase-controlled digital currency (programmable digital currency) This is a proposed new form of money that can only be spent on approved items. The idea is that it restricts citizens’ freedoms in order to achieve “socially beneficial outcomes.” It’s similar to the social credit system in China where government can deny citizens the right to purchase, say, a train ticket. Discussion of such programs is further advanced than many people think. There seems little doubt thatr the current financial industry would go along with it, absent customer revolt.
In the high tech future, securing freedoms we now take for granted will require us to know about and respond to these pressures from institutions that have grand ambitions for all of us.
You may also wish to read: The new internet: reclassifying political opponents as “hate groups.” Maybe this is something to talk to legislators about. Why should business law protect firms that refuse to do business with people who disagree with them on philosophical issues even if they pay their bills?