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IT-backed authoritarianism, also known as digital authoritarianism, is a state-led mass surveillance with Big Data and a new form of credit scoring to influence the behavior of citizens, companies and other institutions (nudge). It embeds political goals within algorithms. Its aim is to enhance the control capacity and authority of a non-democratic regime In contrast to traditional governance practices in authoritarian countries, IT-backed authoritarianism lowers the necessity to resort to coercion to exert power. The IT-based approach helps to establish a more subtle, automatic and invisible type of state control.
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. 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. 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. 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.
China is a pioneer and leading example for an IT-backed authoritarianism. Since 2014 the country is building up respective structures under the catch-phrase Social Credit System (社会信用体系). Private internet companies like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent support the Chinese government’s ambitions for an IT-backed authoritarianism with their technologies in the field of IT systems and data analytics. Between 2014 and 2016, the Chinese government published more than 40 political plans detailing the envisioned system.
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- Mirjam Meissner & Jost Wübbeke (2016). IT-backed authoritarianism: Information technology enhances central authority and control capacity under Xi Jinpin, MERICS Papers on China, p.52-56, June 2016.
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- 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.
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- State Council of the People's Republic of China