IT-backed authoritarianism

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

IT-backed authoritarianism, also known as techno-authoritarianism, digital authoritarianism or digital dictatorship,[1][2][3] refers to the state use of information technology in order to control or manipulate both foreign and domestic populations.[4] Tactics of digital authoritarianism may include mass surveillance including through biometrics such as facial recognition, internet firewalls and censorship, internet blackouts, disinformation campaigns, and digital social credit systems.[5][6] Although some institutions assert that this term should only be used to refer to authoritarian governments,[7] others argue that the tools of digital authoritarianism are being adopted and implemented by governments with "authoritarian tendencies", including democracies.[8]


IT-backed authoritarianism refers to an authoritarian regime using cutting-edge information technology in order to penetrate, control and shape the behavior of actors within society and the economy.[citation needed] The basis is an advanced, all-encompassing and in large parts real-time surveillance system, which merges government-run systems and data bases (e.g. traffic monitoring, financial credit rating, education system, health sector etc.) with company surveillance systems (e.g. of shopping preferences, activities on social media platforms etc.). IT-backed authoritarianism institutionalizes the data transfer between companies and governmental agencies providing the government with full and regular access to data collected by companies. The authoritarian government remains the only entity with unlimited access to the collected data. IT-backed authoritarianism thus increases the authority of the regime vis-à-vis national and multinational companies as well as vis-à-vis other decentral or subnational political forces and interest groups. The collected data is utilized by the authoritarian regime to analyze and influence the behavior of a country’s citizens, companies and other institutions.[9] It does so with the help of algorithms based on the principles and norms of the authoritarian regime, automatically calculating credit scores for every individual and institution. In contrast to financial credit ratings, these “social credit scores” are based on the full range of collected surveillance data, including financial as well as non-financial information.[10] IT-backed authoritarianism only allows full participation in a country’s economy and society for those who have a good credit scoring and thus respect the rules and norms of the respective authoritarian regime. Behavior deviating from these norms incurs automatic punishment through a bad credit scoring, which leads to economic or social disadvantages (loan conditions, lower job opportunities, no participation in public procurement etc.). Severe violation or non-compliance can lead to the exclusion from any economic activities on the respective market or (for individuals) to an exclusion from public services.[citation needed]



Since 2014, China has been building up respective structures under the catch-phrase Social Credit System (社会信用体系).[11] Between 2014 and 2016, the Chinese government published more than 40 political plans detailing the envisioned system.[9][12] Initially, corporations like Ant Group, an affiliate of the Chinese Alibaba Group, had expressed interest in helping to develop SCS but in 2017, China's government had rejected proposals to work with any private group, due to concerns on conflicts of interest.[13]

Prior to 2019, there had been a few pilot programs of social credit system that have been experimenting with punishing people for having low "social credit scores". But in 2019, the Chinese central government was not pleased with the program and state media had criticised the ethics of such programs, and issued formal clarifications that "scores" can not be used to punish citizens, and instead that only legal documents can be a basis for issuing any punishments.[14]

In 2021, China signed a UN pledge explicitly for banning any use of AI for "social scoring" systems.[15] There have been an ongoing popular misconception that there is a nation-wide automated system in China that rates everyone with a "score", based on what they do right or wrong, and punish those who score poorly.[16] However such a system doesn't exist according to Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).[14] The Social credit system in China today is mostly focused on businesses though it does however punish individuals, but not because they have automatically "scored" poorly, but only for legal violations, like not adhering to court ordered judgements. A person who had failed to comply to a court ordered judgement, is called a "judgment defaulter" and are placed on a blacklist that restrict them from high-spending activities, such as traveling on planes or sending their children to expensive private schools. In March 2021, China’s supreme court claimed that these extra restrictions had "prompted" some 7.5 million people into abiding to their court orders.[17][18]

Jeremy Daum, a Senior Fellow of the Yale Law School Paul Tsai China Center, emphasized that punishments in China, by law, cannot be issued on the basis of any automated SCS records, but only from legal documents. Rather than being an advanced automated independent system that doesn't require human intervention to punish others, the Social Credit System in China is currently more an extension of the law.[19] Daum have likened the system to being more of a "centralized set of administrative data" made public that even private app developers can gain access to. One of the uses for such features, can to make apps that can inform the public, in which companies have the best track records for worker safety and protection.[20]

MIT Technology Review wrote in 2022, that there are no evidence that the SCS has been abused for "widespread social control", however notes that such a digital system could later be used to restrict individual rights, and so concerns remains.[21]


The Russian model of digital authoritarianism relies on strict laws of digital expression and the technology to enforce them.[22] Since 2012, as part of a broader crackdown on civil society, the Russian Parliament has adopted numerous laws curtailing speech and expression.[23][24] Hallmarks of Russian digital authoritarianism include:[25]

  1. The surveillance of all internet traffic through the System for Operative Investigative Activities (SORM) and the Semantic Archive;[26]
  2. Restrictive laws on the freedom of speech and expression, including the blacklisting of hundreds of thousands of sites,[27] and punishment including fines and jail time for activities including slander,[28] "insulting religious feelings,"[29] and "acts of extremism".[30]
  3. Infrastructure regulations including requirements for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to install Deep Packet Inspection equipment under the 2019 Sovereign Internet Law.[31]


  1. ^ "The global threat of China's digital authoritarianism". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2019-01-26.
  2. ^ "Freedom on the Net 2018 The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism". Freedom House. Archived from the original on 2019-03-08. Retrieved 2019-01-26.
  3. ^ Kefferpütz, Roderick (29 October 2019). "China's digital dictatorship goes global". Medium. Retrieved 22 October 2021.
  4. ^ Meserole, Alina Polyakova and Chris (2019-08-26). "Exporting digital authoritarianism". Brookings. Retrieved 2022-01-05.
  5. ^ Brussee, Vincent (15 September 2021). "China's Social Credit System Is Actually Quite Boring". Foreign Policy. Retrieved 2022-01-05.
  6. ^ Yayboke, Erol; Brannen, Samuel (15 October 2020). "Promote and Build: A Strategic Approach to Digital Authoritarianism". Retrieved 2022-01-05.
  7. ^ Meserole, Alina Polyakova and Chris (2019-08-26). "Exporting digital authoritarianism". Brookings. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  8. ^ Yayboke, Erol; Brannen, Samuel (15 October 2020). "Promote and Build: A Strategic Approach to Digital Authoritarianism". Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  9. ^ a b Mirjam Meissner (2016). China’s surveillance ambitions, The Wall Street Journal, 2 August 2016.
  10. ^ Caren Morrison (2016). How China Plans to Blacklist Financially Unstable Citizens, Fortune, 30 November 2015.
  11. ^ State Council of the People's Republic of China (2014) 社会信用体系建设规划纲要 2014-2020 (Plan for Building a Social Credit System 2014-2020) 14 June 2014.
  12. ^ Home page of State Council of the People's Republic of China
  13. ^ Matsakis, Louise. "How the West Got China's Social Credit System Wrong". Wired. ISSN 1059-1028. Retrieved 2023-09-18.
  14. ^ a b "China's social credit score – untangling myth from reality | Merics". 2022-02-11. Retrieved 2023-09-18.
  15. ^ "China backs UN pledge to ban (its own) social scoring". POLITICO. 2021-11-23. Retrieved 2023-09-18.
  16. ^ Zhou, Viola (2021-10-25). "People Don't Understand China's Social Credit, and These Memes Are Proof". Vice. Retrieved 2023-09-18.
  17. ^ "China's Social Credit System is pegged to be fully operational by 2020 — but what will it look like? - ABC News". Retrieved 2023-09-18.
  18. ^ Zhou, Viola (2021-10-25). "People Don't Understand China's Social Credit, and These Memes Are Proof". Vice. Retrieved 2023-09-18.
  19. ^ "Far From a Panopticon, Social Credit Focuses on Legal Violations". Jamestown. Retrieved 2023-09-18.
  20. ^ "'The Confusion is a Feature, not a Bug!'". Asia Society. Retrieved 2023-09-18.
  21. ^ "China just announced a new social credit law. Here's what it means". MIT Technology Review. Retrieved 2023-09-18.
  22. ^ Morgus, Robert (2019). "The Spread of Russia's Digital Authoritarianism". Artificial Intelligence, China, Russia, and the Global Order: 89–97.
  23. ^ Beschastna, Tatyana (2013-01-01). "Freedom of Expression in Russia as it Relates to Criticism of the Government". Emory International Law Review. 27 (2): 1105. ISSN 1052-2840.
  24. ^ Gorbunova, Yulia (2017-07-18). "Online and On All Fronts: Russia's Assault on Freedom of Expression". Human Rights Watch.
  25. ^ Morgus, Robert (2019). "The Spread of Russia's Digital Authoritarianism". Artificial Intelligence, China, Russia, and the Global Order: 89–97.
  26. ^ Soldatov, Andrei; Borogan, Irina (2013). "Russia's Surveillance State". World Policy Journal. 30 (3): 23–30. doi:10.1177/0740277513506378. ISSN 0740-2775.
  27. ^ "Russia: Freedom on the Net 2021 Country Report". Freedom House. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  28. ^ Retrieved 2022-01-08. {{cite web}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  29. ^ "Russian MPs back harsher anti-blasphemy law". BBC News. 2013-04-10. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  30. ^ Vasilyeva, Nataliya (2016-05-31). "Dozens in Russia imprisoned for social media likes, reposts". AP. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  31. ^ "How Russia Is Stepping Up Its Campaign to Control the Internet". Time. Retrieved 2022-01-08.